Archive for March 2018

Vijoo Krishnan, the man behind the stirring Maharashtra farmers’ march, spells out political necessities to Sonia Sarkar


There is no forgetting the image of the resolute foot. Calloused. Caked with earth and awash with blood. The skin torn in one place, flesh exposed – raw and red, screaming. It was one among 50,000, probably many more, pairs that covered 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai for rights – the rights of the farmers of Maharashtra.

The march that culminated a fortnight ago ended with the BJP-led government in Maharashtra acceding to the key demands of farmers. The man behind this massive long march, however, remains steadfast in his refusal to take any credit for it. “I was just present in solidarity with them. Leaders such as Ashok Dhawale, J.P. Gavit, Kishan Gujar and Ajit Nawale made this happen,” says 44-year-old Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the largest Left-affiliated farmers’ organisation with 1.6 crore members across India.

It has been difficult to catch Vijoo who is based in Delhi but has been on the move continuously. “The biggest thing is, it was the march of the farmers for their survival,” he says, as he leans back in the white plastic chair in his office in central Delhi. His words are forceful, without being aggressive. The pleasant smile never quite leaves his face.

You would not be blamed for thinking this mass protest was really easy to pull off, except that it was not. This long march didn’t become historic overnight. It was the result of a concerted effort of the AIKS for many months to organise farmers against the neo-liberal economic policies of the state and the Centre. “Our leaders have been preparing people to walk in this heat for months. Collecting grain, firewood and essentials for making this a success,” says Vijoo, who is also a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

He tells us how one of the comrades put out on social media a 40-second video of the rally, which caught the imagination of urban Indians. “Many social media enthusiasts, even those not belonging to our party, shared the video. Some even asked us for images which they shared on Twitter and Facebook – this forced mainstream media to cover it.”

Vijoo’s engagement with farmers’ woes is no one-off. For the last one decade, he has been proactive in raising agrarian issues related to minimum support price for crops, waiver of loans, land rights and land acquisition. And since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, he has been more busy than usual.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to bring ‘acchhe din’ or good times for farmers during the 2014 general elections campaign has fallen flat. He had promised cheaper loans, pension and insurance for farmers, fair and remunerative prices for crops as stated by the National Commission on Farmers but nothing happened. Instead, there has been a drastic cut in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Yojna, public investment in agriculture has been reduced, and cattle farmers have been lynched in the name of cow protection,” he says.

Speaking of lynching, didn’t the AIKS recently organise a two-day meeting under the umbrella of Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, a conglomerate of 300 grassroots organisations, to address the issue? He nods. “Attacks by cow vigilantes are not just attacks on minorities and Dalits but also attacks on agriculture and the economy of the farmers.”

Has the AIKS been able to garner support of the farmers of Bengal who moved away from the Left parties following the Singur and Nandigram land acquisition controversies? “Attacks on cadres by the Trinamool Congress workers have led to a considerable fall in our membership,” says Vijoo.

The AIKS apparently had one crore members across Bengal until 2011 but the numbers dropped to 60 lakh in 2013. “It has gone up to 80 lakh now,” he points out. According to him, the farmers of Bengal are in distress under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. His Bengal-based colleague, Amal Haldar, also told The Telegraph that reeling under huge debt since 2011, 208 potato and paddy farmers across the state have committed suicide.

Vijoo continues, “Plus, the minimum support price announced by the central government is Rs 1,550 per quintal for paddy. In Bengal, the farmers get around Rs 800-1,200 per quintal because there is no government procurement. The traders procure it, so they eat up the money.”

In one corner of Vijoo’s spartan office room is a red martyr’s column – meant to commemorate comrades who have died. It is a mobile structure and scribbled on it is the red salute – ” Amar Shaheedon ko Lal Salam“. It brings to mind the recent bloodbath between the Left and RSS workers in Kerala. According to one estimate, 85 CPI(M) workers and 65 RSS workers have been killed between 2007 and 2017. “RSS has opened shakhas even in Kannur, where the Left has the strongest base. But they have not been able to gain prominence,” says Vijoo, who originally belongs to Karivellur village in Kerala’s Kannur district.

He talks about the RSS’ violence in Tripura, how its workers have been torching CPI(M) offices there. “They started by demolishing Lenin’s statue, then they demolished statues of B.R. Ambedkar and the Dravidian icon Periyar – their intolerance makes them want all those ideologies opposing theirs to perish.”

But he doesn’t believe the Left is going to perish anytime soon? The success of the recent farmers’ rally in Maharashtra – wherein the state government agreed to waive their loans, stop forceful acquisition of farm lands and compensate farmers hit by natural calamity – is proof for Vijoo that it isn’t. “These struggles ensure that an atmosphere is created for the defeat of communal forces. We may have had electoral reverses but nobody can write off the Left just yet.”

But given the recent electoral performance of the Left, it doesn’t look like it can defeat “communal forces” by itself. Then again, the top CPI(M) leadership has refused to establish an alliance with BJP’s biggest opposition, Congress. Since the Left withdrew support for the Congress-led UPA-I government in 2008 over the Indo-US nuclear deal, the two haven’t seen eye to eye. “We have to channelise all energies to defeat the BJP in all seats, whether we are directly in the contest or not. We need not have an alliance or understanding with the Congress,” he says. Then adds, “Yet our position against the BJP as the main enemy may indirectly benefit the Congress.”

Vijoo stresses that the Congress should be clear about its strategy, especially on the recent violence by the Sangh and affiliated forces. A fact-finding report – titled “Divide and Rule in the Name of Cow”, brought out by Bhumi Adhikar Andolan this month – criticises the Congress for not taking a stand on lynching.

What does he make of Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his temple run? Does he think Congress is adopting a soft-Hindutva approach? “That also is there,” Vijoo says. “This is a hypocritical position – they have to give it up.”

And the Left’s own niggling issues – how does he see the Prakash Karat vs Sitaram Yechury fight resolve itself? “It is media hype,” he says. “Ours is a democratic party. For us, there could be different opinions but we go by what the party congress decides.”

At this point, a buzzing wasp enters the scene making Vijoo nostalgic. He recalls how a wasp stung him during his JNU days. Those days he was campaigning for the Delhi University Students’ Union elections. “I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror for many days,” laughs the former JNU students’ union president, thus taking the sting out of an otherwise intense discussion.

We get chatting about his student days, JNU then, JNU now. The conversation turns to the current crop of student leaders from the institution – Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Shehla Rashid. Vijoo says that individual leaders get a lot of attention these days. “In our times, it was always the organisation that got precedence.” Could it be that this seminal philosophy defines his characteristic reticence, the reluctance he expressed earlier on at being credited with the success of the farmers’ rally? Perhaps.

We are still on JNU. And he says after a minute’s thought, “There should be better linkages between the similar ideologies that have cropped up.” If you ask him, even beyond the campus, the band of young leaders – Jignesh Mevani, Chandrashekhar Azad and Akhil Gogoi – should come together. He says, “They should be part of the issue-based unity against the communal BJP. They should organise into a new, unified force.”

Is it possible in Bengal?

“Given the kind of attacks our workers have been facing in Bengal, the corruption, compromises with communal forces and the kind of policies, Trinamool has adopted, doesn’t give any scope for electoral alliance,” he explains. 

As I get up to leave, I spot a poster with the visual of a blood-soaked trident and the nib of a fountain pen. The message scrawled on it reads: “Choose which side you are on”. That’s for us, not him. His choices couldn’t be clearer.

Enabled by the dominant political temper, shaming and bashing Muslims is fast becoming an accepted trend among India’s cosmopolitan smart set. And it begins early, at school. Sonia Sarkar reports on why this should worry us all.

When 12-year-old Noopur invited her friend Asifa home for her birthday party, her father said, “Do you really want to call a Muslim home?” Asifa attended the party but when she got to know about the reservations of the host family, she distanced herself from Noopur. “I don’t want to engage with anybody who looks at me differently because of my religious identity,” says the Class VIII student of a prominent west Delhi school.

Two years ago, on August 13, students of a posh Greater Noida school were exchanging greetings. “Happy Independence Day in advance,” each said to the other; it was going to be a two-day school break. Class V student Abirah, however, forgot to add the “in advance” bit to her greeting. That did it. A classmate immediately started to taunt her saying, “It’s Independence Day for you today because you are from ‘P’ [or Pakistan, apparently the geography that must not be named].” There was the factual inaccuracy – Pakistan’s Independence Day is August 14 – but their barbs found their mark. Abirah, the only Muslim girl in class, was horrified. On returning home, she asked her mother, Hafiza Sheikh, if she was a Pakistani. “I told her, no, you are an Indian,” Hafiza tells The Telegraph.

It is not that Muslim children were never teased about their religious identity before. The difference lately is that stigmatisation of Muslims as “Pakistanis”, “terrorists”, “beef-eaters”, “wife abusers”, “polygamists”, etc. is no longer limited to the economically disadvantaged or socially conservative sections of the populace. Urban educated Muslims, professional success and consequent financial well-being notwithstanding, are also targets.

Travelling through forwards from smartphone to smartphone; echoed by the ruling political dispensation in word and deed, discussed in “in” conversations in carpeted living rooms – these stigmas have found their way into mainstream Indian consciousness as life-truths. And as happens with life-truths, they are being handed down to the next generation with all the ceremony and seriousness reserved for all things heirloom.

In the 2018 book, Mothering a Muslim, Nazia Erum writes extensively on this. Erum, who is based in Noida in the National Capital Region, captures in her book how Muslim children from affluent families are bullied by peers in elite schools across India’s metros and how the current political climate is responsible for this.

In her book, she narrates the experience of one Asma Rizwan, a professor of English. When Asma was asked by a neighbour, in the 1970s, “Are you a Muslim?” she had replied, ” Tum hoge Mussalman – main toh Asma hoon… You might be a Muslim, I am Asma.” Erum adds, “But when a kindergarten student is asked the same today, she replies, ‘Yes, I am a Muslim but I don’t eat beef’.”

Putting out disclaimers, even as one breathes, is tedious way to be. It is easier to bring on the counter-offence.

Delhi-based counsellor Geetanjali Kumar cites one time when a Class VII student of an east Delhi school was asked to pull down his pants by his non-Muslim classmates. They had also teased, calling him “Mulla-Pulla”. He retaliated with stinging gendered abuses. “During counselling, he asked me: If they are right, how am I wrong?” says Geetanjali.

Erum writes about an incident, wherein 17-year-old Raffat was called terrorist by a classmate. When his mother took up the matter with the other child’s parent, the latter said Raffat too had called her child fat. “Fat and terrorist – are they same?” Erum asks.

In an open letter #MotherAgainstBullying, Erum writes: “While the situation often borders on violence among boys, it mostly comes out in the form of subtle jokes among girls: ‘ Kya tumhare mamma papa bomb banate hain? [Do your parents make bombs at home?]’ and sometimes as misogyny along with Islamophobia in statements like ‘Isn’t your father angry that your legs are exposed in your skirt? Is he part of ISIS? Will he shoot us?'” Juvenile, yes, but not too different from public and political rhetoric that is turning pervasive.

Politicians such as the BJP’s Giriraj Singh and Surendra Singh never tire of saying, Muslims will be packed off to Pakistan if they don’t support beef ban or don’t chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai or Vande Mataram. BJP MP Vinay Katiyar said Muslims should not even be living in India. “Acceptability of anti-Muslim feelings has become part of the popular culture, which is reflected in elite schools. Since the easily available Muslim is the person in your class, he or she is targeted,” says Hilal Ahmed, associate professor of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

He adds, “When the non-Muslim elite children see that their Muslim peers are also equipped to avail of the same privileges as they do, they cannot fit them into the stereotypical image of the poor and suffering Muslim they have formed. By bullying, they assert their superiority, using the idiom of nationalism. The message is – you are also powerful like I am but you are a traitor and I am a patriot – commonly heard outside schools, too.”

Stereotyped beliefs about Muslims might have existed in the minds of many non-Muslims for decades. But what is happening now is different.

In the existing political climate, prejudices are not just flourishing but parading as indisputable truths. Mumbai-based media professional Arif Ahmed, who studied in a convent school in Nashik, recalls how his friends used to address him by the Marathi cuss word for circumcised men but he never took offence. “There was no malice,” he says. He adds, “But now, if any child calls a classmate by such a name, it would be an informed choice.”

Hafiza, who is the mother of the Greater Noida school student, Abirah, says her daughter has become extra conscious of her Muslim identity. She says, “Abirah tells me not to say khuda haafiz or salaam – salutations typical to the Muslim community – over the phone when I am in her school premises.”

Bangalore-based Anuradha Alize Ahmed’s Bengali Hindu mother, Anuradha Basu, says, her child is not too open about embracing her “Muslim side” either. “She avoids saying her full name. I assume she doesn’t want to feel out of place because she doesn’t have Muslim friends,” says Anuradha.

Twenty years ago when Anuradha Alize’s father, Rumman Ahmed, routinely travelled to Delhi from Calcutta on train, he never gave his full name while booking the ticket. “India has had a history of communal violence. If something happens, a Muslim will be the first to be identified,” says Rumman. It was a subversion of identity and as subversions go, not a happy thing, but voluntary nevertheless.

Saima, mother of Class VIII student Asifa, witnessed many riots in Kanpur in the 1990s as a child but never felt alienated. But she, too, believes that the anti-Muslim sentiment deeply ingrained in people’s psyche today is here to stay. In Asifa’s class, conversations about “why do Muslims pray aloud” or “why do they keep a beard” are not uncommon.

Abhishek Kabir, a law student based in Calcutta, was once told by someone that his eyes were just like a Muslim’s. “This person was possibly trying to suggest I apply surma. I laughed and took it as a compliment,” he says.

Mumbai-based media professional Afrida Rahman, whose children go to an international school and have never faced Muslim-shaming, plans a similar line of combat if it comes to that. “If my child is called a Pakistani, I would say, ask your friend, what’s wrong with being one?” Some schools are doing their bit. At Springdales (Pusa Road), Delhi, contemporary political and social issues are discussed. But compared to the epidemic at hand, one-off efforts seem like too little, too late.

When it does not come down to finger-pointing, prejudice finds expression in social exclusion. Psychologist Rajat Mitra talks about a Muslim teen who attends school in south Delhi. He says, “Whenever she is part of a night-out plan, mothers of other girls in the group do not allow their kids to join.” These things, however subtle, affect a young mind.

Often, it leads to self-censorship too. When Abirah’s aunt, Ghazala Wahab, who runs a magazine on national security, narrated her niece’s episode – her classmates had taunted her over the Independence Day greeting – on Facebook, her brother wanted her to remove the post fearing his child would be identified. “I was more upset with this defeatist mindset of a family member,” says Ghazala.

She recalls when she was in school in Agra 28 years ago, Muslims didn’t have to be so conscious of their identity. Acceptability among non-Muslim friends was never a problem. “They demanded scrumptious kebabs from my mom’s kitchen but my niece never takes non-vegetarian food to school,” she says.

In a situation where there is no scope for dialogue or air clearing, this dogged othering has behavioral fallouts. In some cases, Muslim children are left feeling more determined than ever to wear their religion on their person. “They are often told by the haraam police [haraam means sacrilege] they can’t do this or that or they are not doing enough to be a Muslim which confuses them,” says Erum.

Experts feel that for some, harbouring radical thoughts is often seen as a befitting reply to alienation, which may lead to systematic radicalisation. A study titled “Why join ISIS? The Causes of Terrorism from the Muslim Youth Perspective” by University of Huddersfield, UK, stated alienation and discrimination are common drivers of terrorism. “Radical ideologues play upon the vulnerability and pain. If you see the trend worldwide, intelligent children belonging to affluent families are getting radicalised,” says Mitra.

Erum cautions in her book: “In today’s political climate we have to be concerned about where and how far we are pushing our children.” Indeed.

Published in The Telegraph : March 25, 2018

For years, as Nigeria reeled under economic crisis, its film industry haemorrhaged. That is when Bollywood entered the scene and kindled Nollywood. Sonia Sarkar reports on the vibrant Nigerian film industry and its India connect

actor Stephanie Linus;

Kenneth Nnebue, who helped make the first video film;When Shashi Kapoor died last year, Nigerian film websites paid moving tributes to him. And why not? Generations of Nigerians had grown up watching his films. In the news website, Daily Trust, the obituary by Gambo Dori read: “Whenever I watch films produced from Kano-Kaduna axis I clearly see the enactment of the motions of Shashi Kapoor and the like. Many productions particularly the soyayya (love story) films are heavily indebted to the golden era of the Indian cinema.”

The West African republic, the continent’s most populous and prosperous nation, may have a thriving 1,500-films-a-year industry – worth $3.3 billion – today, but it wasn’t like this always.

In the early 1920s and 30s, Syrian and Lebanese entrepreneurs built chains of open-air cinema houses across Nigerian cities. People made a beeline to watch Chinese and Hollywood movies even though they were far removed from African society and culture. And then, in the 1960s, Indian cinema entered the Nigerian market.

Lebanese businessmen decided to import Bollywood films. They were cheaper than American ones and made better business sense. Indian hits such as Mother India, Bombay to Goa, The Burning Train, Deewarbecame wildly popular with Nigerian cine-goers.

“How much we recounted Amitabh Bachchan hanging from trains and fighting the bad guy as a policeman,” says Nigerian director and screenwriter Femi Odugbemi.

Nigerians of that generation even coined nicknames for their favourite Bollywood stars in the local Hausa language. Dharmendra was ” sarkin karfi” or king of strength, Rishi Kapoor, “mace”, meaning woman, and the name for Sanjay Dutt was ” dan daba mai lasin” or hooligan with a licence. This trend continued right through the 1980s.

Over time, Nigerians also came to be exposed to indigenous films such as Ossie Davis’s Kongi’s Harvest (1970), Ola Balogun’s A Deusa Negra (1978) and Orun Mooru (1982), but the oil doom and flailing economy across Africa meant local filmmakers couldn’t afford to keep up their efforts.

The Nigerian film industry in its present form was born in the 1990s. In 1992, a Lagos-based VHS tape and electronic gadgets’ merchant, Kenneth Nnebue, sponsored the shooting of a video film titled Living in Bondage. Shot on a budget of $12,000, it defined the path for the new industry that came to be known as Nollywood.

The video boom, apart from powering a sleeping industry, was also crucial socially. It kept Nigerian youth away from drugs and alcohol.

“The Nigerian film industry is formed around the digital cinema technology. It started out as a straight-to-video process but has now settled into mostly working with advanced digital imaging technologies. Most films are shot with professional digital cinema cameras and very few are on celluloid,” says Odugbemi.

But the Bollywood connect persists.

Celebrated Nigerian actor Stephanie Okereke Linus, who has starred in films such as Dry, Boonville Redemption and Through The Glass, tells The Telegraph in an email that during her growing up years, cinema meant nothing but Bollywood. She says, “I have vivid memories of dancing to the songs. Bollywood was one of the biggest influences that spurred my interest in acting.”

Incidentally, when Akon sang Chammak Challo to SRK’s Ra.One in 2011, it was said that singing a Hindi song came easy to the American singer as he had spent his childhood years in Senegal – another west African country – where Bollywood was venerated.

Films in Nollywood are made in English, Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, among other Nigerian languages, often borrow plots, styles and music from Bollywood cinema and rework them in local settings. Among them, Hausa-language films from northern Nigeria (the Kano-Kaduna area referred to by Gambo Dori) made in Kannywood – the sub-film industry within Nollywood – are most influenced by Bollywood music. Elements of Bollywood in terms of storytelling and plot were also seen in Yoruba-language movies such as Ola Balogun’s Ajani Ogun (1976) and Adeyemi Afolayan’s Kadara (1980).

Says Femi Odugbemi whose Gidi Blues (2016), travelled to many international festivals, “The strength and narrative style of Indian cinema inspires many films in Nigeria, especially in the northern cities.” He adds, “The biggest inspiration for Nollywood has been the strength of cultural assertion in Bollywood films.”

In “Bollywood comes to Nigeria”, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University Brian Larkin, writes, “After Maine Pyar Kiya was released, one friend told me it was his favourite movie: ‘I liked the film’ he said, ‘because it taught me about the world’… The style of the movies and plots deal with the problem of how to modernise while preserving traditional values – not usually a narrative theme in a Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Spielberg movie.”

What Nigerian actor-director-producer Kunle Afolayan says, builds on Larkin’s friend’s sentiment. Says Afolayan, “The USP of Nollywood is to create Cinema Verite [truthful cinema]. Films that are true to who we are and reflect our culture around the world.”

The new films out of Nollywood are slices of African life and culture. For example, Tunde Kelani’s Thunderbolt focuses on the disunity among Africans, sexual politics in Nigerian society and conflict between modernity and African traditions. Daniel Oriahi’s Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo is a dark comedy thriller about Lagos at night. The industry has experimented with themes such as occult, prostitution and child abuse. Social issues such as the kidnapping of Chibok girls by Boko Haram militants and Ebola also featured in films such as The Missing Girls (2015) and 93 Days (2016), respectively. And Chukwuma Osakwe’s J.U.D.E. hinted at the racial discrimination Africans face in India.

Osakwe, who learnt acting at the Mohali-based Mad Arts, the late Jaspal Bhatti’s film school, says, “In the film, a young Nigerian advertising professional is shown travelling from Lagos to Chandigarh to chase his dream of filmmaking. He faces hurdles but doesn’t give up.”

Nollywood is now the world’s second largest film industry in terms of number of films produced every year after Bollywood, and the third largest in terms of revenues, after Hollywood and Bollywood. If it had at some point drawn inspiration from Bollywood, it is now looking to collaborate with it.

Director Odugbemi talks about the professionalism of Bollywood and the strength of its infrastructure and value-chain globally as the ambitions of Nollywood in the foreseeable future.

US-based journalist Emily Witt is more prescriptive. In an email to The Telegraph, she says, “Nigeria could also benefit from learning how Bollywood has maintained a thriving cinema-going culture while possibly facing some of the same infrastructural challenges, and how to bring cinema not only to middle class audiences but to lower-income populations as well.”

An average Nollywood film with a budget of around $50,000 is shot in three to four weeks. There has been a universal complaint about the quality and standards of these films but some have made their mark internationally. Films such as The Wedding Party (2016), Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo (2015), 30 Days in Atlanta (2014) and Thunderbolt (2000) were showcased in various film festivals including the Toronto International Film festival. Afolayan’s October 1 and Robert Peter’s 30 Days in Atlanta have found international audience on Netflix too. African digital content start-ups are also giving a financial boost to the industry.

According to Nigerian filmmakers, after oil and agriculture, Nollywood is one of the thriving industries, creating over a million jobs every year.

In 2015, India’s acting high commissioner to Nigeria, Kaisar Alam, said the commission would facilitate collaboration between Nollywood and Bollywood. Lagos-based film regulatory consultant Obiora Chukwumba says, “Alam’s vision of collaboration reflects some of the desires in Nollywood. Authorities within Nollywood have severally reached out to platforms within Bollywood for sharing knowledge.”

Once again in 2015, when the former managing director of the Nigerian Film Corporation, Danjuma Wurim Dadu, visited the 46th International Film Festival of India in Goa, he urged Indian filmmakers to shoot in Nigeria and co-produce films with Nollywood. Not long ago, the Nigerian government provided a grant to the film industry to send about 300 actors and producers to Bollywood for technical training.

Last year, Indian film financers participated at the Creative Industries Summit in Lagos to examine the Nigerian film market. And more recently, Linus participated in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Hyderabad, where she discussed a few joint projects with a leading Indian media magnate.

Anthropology professor Larkin points out that the Nigerian audience is not happy with the contemporary “westernised content” of Hindi films. The general sentiment that pervades is that it is against the Indian traditional societal values they were exposed to in the Hindi films of the past. But none of this has come in the way of the evolving partnership. Nollywood sure knows how to leverage Bollywood’s strengths.

Little did the Bangladeshi journalist, Abdul Latif Morol, know that writing about a dead goat on Facebook would land him in jail. Last year, Morol, a local journalist from Khulna, over 200 kilometres south of Dhaka, posted, “Goat given by state minister in the morning dies in the evening.” Morol was put behind bars for a day under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act.

But things can go worse for journalists in this country, which ranks 146 out of 180 countries in the press freedom barometer, Reporters Sans Frontières’ ‘2017 World Press Freedom Index’. If the Digital Security Act, recently approved by the country’s cabinet to tackle cybercrime and protect national security, gets a nod in Parliament, journalists could also be convicted of espionage.

Various sections of this law impinge upon the right to freedom of speech and expression, thereby preventing journalists from gathering information against the government. For example, Section 32 of this proposed law says that secret recording of any information at any government, semi-government or autonomous institution would be considered spying, leading to 14 years in jail or a fine of 25 lakh taka (Rs 19,24,395) or both. These days, reporters collect information in various ways digitally – they take pictures, make videos and record interviews – all on their smartphones. A law like this will create hurdles for objective reporting, local journalists allege.

After journalists came out in large numbers on the streets of Dhaka to protest against this assault on press freedom, ministers of the ruling Awami League government reassured them that Section 32, a non-bailable offence, would not interfere with their work and all stakeholders would be consulted before the law is passed. But journalists are not convinced because they have witnessed the high-handedness of the State earlier. At least, 25 journalists including Morol were booked under Section 57 of the ICT Act last year alone. After a huge uproar by the media, the government proposed to revoke Section 57 but ironically, provisions of this section have now been included in the newly proposed law.

For example, hurting religious sentiments and tarnishing the image of the State are punishable in this proposed law, just as they were considered to be offences in Section 57 of the ICT Act. As per Section 28 of the proposed law, one would face the maximum punishment of 10 years in jail or a fine up to 20 lakh taka (Rs 15,46,936) or both for hurting religious sentiments; and Section 25 of the law prescribes a maximum punishment of five years in jail or a fine of up to 10 lakh taka (Rs 7,70,220) or both for tarnishing the image of the State.


The irony is, such penalties are likely to be imposed on the press, which is already pro-Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister. The mainstream Bangladeshi media give wide coverage to her press conferences bashing the Khaleda Zia-led Opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, but it seldom asks tough questions on the increasing number of random enforced disappearances of journalists, activists and former diplomats who are critical of the government, and the arbitrary arrests and detention of political opponents.

In spite of enjoying such a pro-government approach of the press, Wajed, the self-proclaimed saviour of Bangladesh’s democracy, has made several attempts to curb its freedom in the past few years. Last year, The Jessore-based journalist and rights activist, Binoy Krishna Mallik, was arrested for holding a press conference to expose the alleged corruption of the local superintendent of police. In 2016, the senior journalist, Shafik Rehman, was arrested for allegedly plotting to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the prime minister’s son. In 2014, the cabinet approved the national broadcasting policy, which prohibits electronic media from disseminating news, photographs, or videos that could tarnish the image of law enforcement agencies and armed forces or counter the government or impede national security.

Besides national security, Wajed is also trying to control freedom of speech in the name of nationalism. For example, Section 21 of the proposed Digital Security Act carries a life sentence or fine of up to three crore taka (Rs 23,568,607) or both for anyone spreading negative propaganda against the 1971 Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, digitally, for a second time. Criticizing this provision, the United Nations treaty, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party, stated that the laws that penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts are “incompatible” with the country’s obligations to respect the “freedom of opinion and expression”.

With the parliamentary elections scheduled in December this year, Wajed is leaving no stone unturned to remain in power for the third consecutive term. Her main Opposition, the BNP chairperson, Khaleda Zia, has been sentenced to five years in jail for graft. There are additional charges of arson and violence against her, which could mean more years in jail and no elections for her. Scores of BNP workers have been arbitrarily arrested by the police for demanding Zia’s release. If Wajed manages to bully the press too, it is certainly a clear victory for her. But this year’s elections could be a repeat of 2014 polls, which were widely condemned by the international community for not being “free and fair”.

A question which many liberal thinkers are asking now is, in this desperation to remain in power, has Wajed forgotten, Bangladesh was built upon the ‘liberal ethos’ by none other than her own father?