Reclaiming Life in Times of Death
University of Liberal Arts, Dhaka, July 12, 2012
When I was invited by professor Salimullah Khan to give a public lecture at ULab,
which I consider to be a great honor, and was most pleased to accept, I was left wondering
what I should talk about.
Since it is a public lecture I felt it should not be something strictly academic, but
instead, something which concerns us as members of the public. Disciplines, after all, are
specialised bodies of knowledge, which means that one must know the tools of the trade, the
history of the discipline, its theories and concepts, its mode of inquiry, how it has evolved
toward studying what it does, how it seeks to apply the knowledge which it generates, and
also, a working knowledge of its sister disciplines. Speaking from within the boundaries of a
disciplinary (or even, a multi-disciplinary) framework would be restrictive I felt, so, instead I
decided to speak about something which cuts across all disciplinary boundaries, something
which concerns us all, equally, as members of the public. And what else could it be, but the
matter of life and death.
This is what I want to talk about today, and, as you can tell from the title under which
I have formulated my thoughts -- "Reclaiming Life in Times of Death" -- I do so with a
sense of urgency.
I would like to place before you the words of two persons who I admire deeply,
because their words help provide direction in these troubled times, they help remind me
what life is all about, and how we should seek to understand it. They are: Begum Rokeya, the
twentieth century Bengali Muslim feminist writer who lived from 1880 to 1932; and, Martin
Luther King Jr., black American civil rights leader, who was assassinated in 1968 at the
young age of 39, whose wife and children insist that US government agencies were involved
in the assassination and the subsequent cover-up.
While giving a speech at the Western Michigan University in 1963, Martin Luther
King, who was the first speaker in a three-lecture series titled "Conscience of America,"
whose own lecture was titled "Social Justice", said:
Until you found something worth dying for, you're not fit to be living.
Reflect on these words, "Until you found something worth dying for, you're not fit to be
The other quotation is from Begum Rokeya, from an essay written in 1905, called
"Streejatir Obonoti" (The Downfall of Women).
Avgvi Ae'v Avgiv wPIv bv Kwij Avi Kn Avgvi Rb fvwee bv|
fvwejI ZvnvZ Avgvi lvj Avbv DcKvi nBe bv|
I have translated this as, "If we do not think for ourselves, no one else
will. Even if they did, it would not be of much use."
["Sholo ana upokar" could also be translated as "not being fully useful" instead of "not be[ing] of
much use" but Rokeya was famous for her satire, and I think this is how she meant it].
Now, the public is an amorphous concept. I say this for several reasons. If you think
of the Bangla word, "jonoshadharon", it implies a sea of people, an undifferentiated mass of
men, women and children. But, as we all know, life is not like that. Pre-existing social
categories intrude into our thoughts, they divide up people, they box them into categories of
same-ness and other-ness, ones which are powerful enough to regulate our thoughts and
emotions, to direct our behaviour towards others. Much of it is unconsciously learnt, it is
part of what is known as "growing up" into a class-differentiated society, into a society
where other deep divisions -- those of gender, ethnicity, race, caste, religion etc., etc. -- co-
exist and inter-weave with each other. These social divisions work within our mind and our
senses, they help shape our subjective self and our public persona -- that which we present
to others, or, that which we may be rightly or wrongly, known for. At times, these may
conflict with each other internally. When our identity conforms to the existing social order,
we are applauded, we are considered to be normal; when they conflict with social
expectations, when they go against the powers-that-be, we are reviled. In contemporary
Bangladesh, for the greater part of the last two decades, if the government is Awami League
and it doesn't approve of what one says, even though one may be equally critical of the
BNP, one is likely to be branded as being a "BNP sympathiser" by ruling party hacks, and
vice versa. Secondly, since the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment last July, if one thinks
and says other than what our lawmakers decree, one is likely to be dubbed a "seditionist",
one who has committed treason, which, as all of us know, is punishable by death if proven
in a court of law.
Growing-up as a Bangladeshi also means, as it does for other citizens of the world,
being inducted into the hierarchy of nation-states which structures the contemporary world.
It also means being inducted into the ideologies of transnational forces which claim to speak
for freedom and democracy, to speak for the good of all humankind, but in actuality, use
these as a cloak to hide the profit motive, to distract our attention away from state terror and
Now, an important question which confronts me when one speaks of the "public"
and the "universities" in the same breath, is: where does one locate universities in a country
like Bangladesh, one that was colonised by the British for nearly two hundred years, for
nearly another quarter of a century by internal colonisers, i.e., the West Pakistani rulers,
which gained independence after a 9-month long liberation struggle which was essentially a
people's war, a country which has, since independence, been ruled by self-serving rulers,
whether civilian or military, right down to the present where the ruling class in the neo-
liberal present is visibly composed of political parties steered by an oligarchic leadership, the
top brass of the 'national' armed forces who have close ties to security advisers in the
corporate west and in neighbouring countries, top layers of the civil bureaucracy who owe
their allegiance to partisan politics, an extremely greedy business elite, an NGO-ised, foreign-
funded development industry, an increasingly corporatised media, and a caste of servile
intellectuals both inside and outside the mainstream academia.
But of course, this is not how the ruling class represents itself -- neither as a
collectivity, nor when individual members belonging to its fractions, speak about the state of
the nation and its people. They prefer to use the language of poverty instead, which veers
between "too much" and "too little" -- too many people, too few resources, too little
education, not enough employment, scarcity of housing, too many mouths to feed -- a
language of power which serves to distract attention away from the fact that the rich are
getting richer and the poor poorer through the implementation of policies which have been
planned and are being executed precisely to accomplish the enrichment of the few at the
expense of the impoverishment of the many. Within the poverty/under/development
framework, lies the idea that universities are "islands of enlightenment" surrounded by a sea
of illiteracy, ignorance and superstition. You may not find this written down anywhere,
which is not surprising because ideologies aren't exactly written down but, to return to my
point, this idea is class-ed, it fuses into the borolok-cchotolok ideology of feudal times, and
works as a cultural template to justify new and modern class divisions, which are starkly
present in our society.
The notion that the university is an island of enlightenment prevents us from
grasping a simple basic truth of life, namely, that all life is interconnected, or, as Martin
Luther King puts it, [I quote] "somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality
tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly" [end
Viewing the university as an island of enlightenment prevents us from grasping how
in place of "mutuality" there exists exploitation and oppression, and what life -- as lived, on a
day-to-day basis -- means for those who bear the burden of islands of prosperity. One such
account is available from Kamalamma, whose mother's grandmother was sold off in times of
hardship for a measure of rice and a rupee to a Brahmin family belonging to the princely
state of Hyderabad in undivided India.
I quote from 'We were making history.' Women and the Telengana Uprising, which consists
of autobiographies of women who had taken part in the uprising, an excellent piece of
historical documentation undertaken by the Indian women's collective, Stree Shakti
Sanghatana. This is what Kamalamma says,
Although my husband was a grown man the mistress used to beat him and ask him to
work. They would eat meat but find it difficult even to give him a little tamarind paste in
the nights. That was the life of a bonded labourer. Graze the buffaloes, collect dung,
cook the food, one had to do everything. Go to another village and fetch so and so and
he would go. Go and kick that fellow and he would do it. They even used him as a
goonda. I didn't suffer like that but he suffered that way. My mother, sister and brother
all had to do this kind of work. The mistress wanted to make me, my younger brother
and sister also, into slaves but my father did not allow them to. Those dorasanis [begum
shahebs, in Telugu] were really dorasanis! They sat on their fine chairs, and cots and we
under their cots cleaning their vomit, cleaning shit and doing every possible chore for
-- (New Delhi & London: Kali & Zed, 1989, p. 47).
So, to come to the present, when we sit on our fine chairs, our comfortable beds, our
well-lit homes, travel in air-conditioned cars, enter into clean washrooms, into dusted and
swept homes, buy groceries, take clothes off their shop hangers, do we pause to think of the
labour which has made these things happen? Of the social relations through which labour
has been extracted to ensure that a privileged few live in zones of comfort?
We may choose to think that things have changed greatly since Kamalamma's days,
we may convince ourselves that being a cash economy, labour is free to move, that the
person is always free to take up another job, or, we may salve our conscience by thinking
that if poor people were hardworking instead of being lazy, frugal instead of being
spendthrift, they could gradually, if not in one generation then over 2-3, work their way up
the social ladder, they could gain an education, benefit from secure employment and leave
behind their cchotolok status. But, that is not how capitalism works, while both upward and
downward mobility may occur, while individuals may cross frontiers in either direction,
classes are social relations of exploitation that endure. This is integral to the process of
capital accumulation, which as anthropologist Rayna Rapp explains, [I quote] "generates and
constantly deepens relations between two categories of people: those who are available and
forced to work for wages because they own no means of production, and those who control
those means of production" [end quote]. In other words, the borolok-cchotolok division,
endures. It is a powerful value system which blinds us to inequalities which are socially
constructed but made to appear as natural; to legitimise a system of injustice, to leave us free
to pursue knowledge in narrowly-defined specialised fields.
The resistance to social injustice may take different forms, a person might join a
collectively organised struggle, as happened in the case of Kamalamma, who, alongwith
other family members, joined the communist-led peasant rebellion (1948-1951). Or people,
as individuals, might also devise means of resisting the unjust order. For instance, B. Traven,
who is the author of the novel, The Death Ship, originally published in German in 1926,
which present-day readers increasingly seek out because of its brilliant unravelling of
surveillance, is a pen name. His real name, nationality, date and place of birth and the details
of his biography are unknown and disputed. Traven wrote,
My personal history would not be disappointing to readers, but it is my own affair
which I want to keep to myself. I am in fact in no way more important than is the
typesetter for my books, the man who works the mill; ... no more important than the
man who binds my books and the woman who wraps them and the scrubwoman who
cleans up the office.
Obviously B. Traven, had not been taken in by the bourgeois system of rewards and honors.
He had, as Rokeya advises us, thought things out "for ourselves."
Now, to return to the issue of universities and their being viewed as islands of
enlightenment, does this mean that all universities operate from within the ruling paradigm?
The distinction between public and private universities is a very important one in our
history, it is deeply embedded in the history of class formation or, some might say, different
stages of the history of Bengali Muslim middle class formation. Another important
distinction -- in the present context, of the significance of public universities to political
party rule, one to which the academia in public universities have largely surrendered -- is the
public image of public universities as being "overly politicised", while private universities are
viewed as being "apolitical", which enables them to run strictly according to the academic
calendar. It is an image, I must add, that private universities have largely cashed in on; but to
return to the point about universities and the ruling paradigm, not all private universities are
equally elitist and I am reminded particularly of GonoBiswabiddaloy here. As regards public
universities, it is important to remember that structural adjustment policies, which insist that
student fees in public educational institutions be raised, have cleared the way for the
intrusion of the profit-making ethos into public universities, an ethos which has been
popularised through slogans like "better value for money", this has helped to blur the
previous lines of distinction between public and private universities. But I want to draw your
attention to another aspect, where public and private universities have demonstrated a
singular unity of purpose, most reprehensibly so, by failing to defend academic freedom. I
speak of the Fifteenth Amendment which was passed last July, particularly to its clause
related to nationality, which declares that all people of Bangladesh, as a nation, are Bengalis.
Now, the fact of the matter is that universities, whichever side of the public-private
divide they may be located upon, are committed to the generation of new knowledge, and
research is essential for the generation of new knowledge. As a matter of fact, MPhil and
PhD degrees are awarded on the basis of original research. University teachers are expected
to not only supervise research but also to conduct independent research. What will happen
now, because of the Fifteenth Amendment? Will researchers, whether graduate students or
teachers, belonging to a host of social science disciplines -- political science, sociology,
anthropology, archaeology, economics, women's studies, media studies, law, and those
belonging to the humanities, to literature -- will they now stop working on the topic of
ethnicity and nationalism because obviously, all the people of Bangladesh are not, ethnically-
speaking, Bengalis? Or, will they follow the dictates of the Amendment and build up their
research on the basis of false assumptions i.e., all people are Bengalis? Will the universities
then award them degrees? Will that degree have any value, in the real sense of the term?
The Amendment has made a mockery of the National Education Policy 2010, which
says that the policy seeks to develop a [quote-unquote] "democratic culture"; that the aims
and objectives of higher education is to [quote] "help in the unhindered practice of
intellectual exercises and [the] growth of free thinking" [end quote]. It has also made a
mockery of ULab's Mission Statement which says that, as an institution ULab is [I quote]
"devoted to developing young minds to their fullest potential through the free and creative
pursuit of knowledge" [end quote]. That, its unique curriculum of liberal learning aims to
[quote-unquote] "build true leaders of the future." It has also made a mockery of the acts
under which public universities have been established, to provide one instance, the
Jahangirnagar University Act 1973 which states that the university is committed to the
[quote-unquote] "cultivat[ion] and promot[ion of] arts, science and other branches of
The particular clause which directly impinges on academic freedom, and warns of
dire consequences if it does occur, states, if anyone [and I quote] "subverts or attempts or
conspires to subvert the confidence, belief or reliance of the citizens to this Constitution or
any of its article, his such act shall be sedition and such person shall be guilty of sedition"
[end quote]. And that, as all of us know is punishable by death by hanging. It is true that a
handful of teachers have individually written and protested against the fascist nature of the
Amendment, but the universities collectively, have not gotten together to protest against this
gravest of assaults on academic freedom. What is one to make of such a situation? That the
university leadership is incapable of "thinking for ourselves"? Or, that academic freedom is
not worth dying for? If the latter be the case, then, according to Martin Luther King's line of
reasoning, the universities are not fit to exist. But I don't think so, I think we not only need
the universities that exist, we need even more universities and I'm sure King would also
agree, but in order to prove that their commitments, as outlined in their Mission Statements
and Acts, are worth more than the paper they are printed on, universities badly need to
"think for ourselves." I think that would have other benefits as well, I think that members of
the public, who, whether in Phulbari, or in the garment industries, have demonstrated their
willingness to sacrifice their lives in order to continue living on their ancestral land, or that
they be paid decent wages, I think they would be forced to develop a genuine respect for the
universities, and for those who people it.
There are other instances from our national history where those we had expected to
be able to "think for ourselves", failed to do so. But first I want to show you a photograph
of a woman raped in 1971, and I want to relate the story to you, and the questions which
have arisen in my mind, as they unfolded.
Woman recovered from Pakistani Army bunker at Mymensingh. 12th December 1971
(c)Naib Uddin Ahmed
Many of you have probably seen this photograph, I have forgotten where I saw it first,
whether in a book on 1971, or at the Muktijuddho Jadughor, I am not very comfortable
about showing it, or talking about it, the only thing I can say is that I never allow myself to
forget this image. I interviewed the photographer who took it. Before I spoke to him I'd
thought that the young woman whose name is unknown, was dead, but Naibuddin bhai,
who is a well-known and highly respected photographer, who unfortunately passed away a
year ago, had this to tell me when I wanted to know about the photograph:
She was pulled out. Dragged out from the Pakistani army's bunker. The Pakistani army
had camped at the Bangladesh Agricultural University in Mymensingh. They had
captured and occupied Mymensingh on April 19. When the army left in December,
when they were forced to flee, people had rushed to the BAU campus. Looting began,
army bunkers, storeroom, there was looting all around, everywhere. Common people
were looting, they were all over the place. `I do not know whether it was from rage, or
what...,' he had gently added.
That is when we heard the news. Girls had been discovered in the bunkers which were
next to the university guesthouse. I went and found her, she was lying like that. People
were milling around her, they were in front of her, they were behind her. I asked them
to move, I made some space, and then I took photographs. It was the twelfth of
December, that was the day Mymensingh became free. The Indian army had entered the
town, they had entered the campus, they had taken control.
When I approached her, she seemed to be in a trance. There were others. I heard eight
to ten girls had been found in the bunkers, some had already left. I found her alone. She
did not respond when we called out. Her hands were raised. She was holding on to the
pole behind her.
Of course, it was a tamasha, a spectacle. There were people, both men and women who
had come in search of their daughters, and their sisters. But there were onlookers, as
well. They had stood and stared. They did not share the pain and suffering of the girls,
their helplessness. They looked on and thought, the military has done it to them. They
have nothing left. They are finished.
He had added, she might have found refuge in Mother Teresa's home in Kolkata later but he
Now look at these pictures before March 25, you see women in training, preparing to
fight for freedom. Just like their male counterparts.
Women marching in the streets of Dhaka. 1971