Naeem — Balaka Storks Dodge A Bullet

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Images of the statues are at the URL:
To read about the previous statue incident, go here:
Balaka Storks Dodge A Bullet
by Naeem Mohaiemen
NEW AGE, December 1, 2008
Unlike the Baul statue circus a month ago, the group that came to
smash Balaka Chattar/Biman Office statues (storks, also by Mrinal
Haque) came near midnight. This time, no government officials, no
advance “protest” in media, no advance anything. They worked quickly,
with hammers. Other reports said “ramda”, but I tend to think that’s
fear shorthand.
Then the police arrived. According to BdNews24, for the first fifteen
minutes they did nothing. Then I suppose the “higher ups” decided
whether to stop or allow, impede or accelerate. And then the police
“swung into action.” Or, as Shamokal reports it, dhawa palta dhawa.
Police wounded, attackers in custody, conveniently wearing white
robes. Almost ready for their photo-op.
The hammers managed to get through the plaster legs, but stopped at iron rods.
I arrived after midnight. Lot of police vans. My CNG driver knew about
it: “Ektu agei hangama hoise, oidike jaiben”. Helpful tour guide.
Al Jazeera camera crew were there. Video camera nicely set on tripod.
Of course. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. I said to a
photographer friend, I knew the trouble was over, because in a real
volatile situation, there would be no time for steady shots.
Al Jazeera seemed excited by the flyer left behind, even though it was
about Mandar, the play banned by Islami Chatra Shibir in Rajshahi.
What is the link between Mandar and these statues? Or were they too
cheap to print their own slogans. Or is Udichi to blame for the storks
as well? It’s all one gigantic hodge-podge. But I’m sure some TV
station will clarify and simplify, turn it into a bite-sized chunk and
juicy headline.
And then two days later, a friend will write me from New York “What’s
going on over there?”
Oddly enough, there seems to be only one copy of the flyer (and one
copy with the police official, who didn’t want to share). Or maybe
some were taken away by the newspaper photographers, who had already
taken their snaps and left to file the story. Deadlines, deadlines. As
soon as we start photographing the flyer, a crowd gathers around us.
The camera makes the event or just brings it into focus I don’t know.
If I just didn’t comment on the image, illusions would run one way.
The police ask our group which paper we are with. We’re not with
anyone. Ah, he says nodding, that’s why you’re so late.
Police are questioning a municipal sweeper. Or maybe they are
chatting. A jhalmuri-wala has appeared out of nowhere. Hungry police
officers. A relaxed air. We clearly have arrived late, after the rush.
A rickshawalla wants to know if I will need a ride. Thakbo?
Just how many people attacked the statue is a mystery. Some people we
talked to said the first attack was a group of three men with hammers,
who were soon joined by a larger group.
But how many people?
“Couldn’t say, at least fifty.”
“What are you talking about, many more than that,” snapped his superior.
We asked somebody else, who says, “Hundreds, for sure.”
An older man, for good measure, “Thousands, I stopped counting.”
Thousands? I think those storks would be rubble if there were
thousands. But perception shapes reality.
BdNews24 is reporting “Al Bayenat” is claiming responsibility. Al who?
Shamokal reports in the AM, hundred protesters “including madrasa
When I first left my house after getting the call, I had a feeling of
dread. Drishtipat’s Asif sent an SMS “Ki arombho korlo!” And yes, we
headed to Motijheel thinking to avert another travesty. Not this
statue too! If only we were fond of the artwork, but free speech is
also about defending unpopular speech. But later, when it turned out
that after all they hadn’t broken it, we veered uneasily into gallows
humor. That the rod in the stork legs were not Chinese, mojbut maal,
not 2 number. That it was a band of irritated art critics. That it was
a stunt by people who hated the 1971 installation at the Dhaka
Biennial, that most despised art event.
And the unintentional comedy of the other site of attack. A small
foundation stone laid a block away, for another statue. This one laid
by Mayor Sadeq Hossain Khoka. Smashed very successfully. Hmmm…
What is sand and pitch is a global audience, creating a conundrum for
activists. I am glad they didn’t manage to smash the statues. Dodged
the bullet, this time. And because there’s relief, our group starts
having a discussion about tactical media. When we go home tonight and
blog about this, we will put up our images by habit. But then what,
where will those images go?
Our struggle is for very basic simplicity and transparency: an end to
obscurantist definitions of theology, the politics of religion, and a
new beginning to free spirited daily life. But some journalist
somewhere will take these same images and start writing about
“Bangladeshi jehadi camps”– in a manner already in the Indian media
after the horrific Mumbai attacks. Pakistan is the main suspect, but
someone will try to blame Bangladesh as well. Is Balaka statue going
to be grist for another Sadanand Dhume op-ed in Wall Street Journal?
In a piece written the day after the shocking Mumbai tragedy, Dhume
makes the amazing unsubstantiated assertion that there is “public
sympathy with the militant Islamic worldview” in Bangladesh.
You can’t think of so many things, so many audiences, says Asif, we
have to name what we see around us. You fight the “militant Islamists”
in whatever form you find them. And you put quote marks around
“Islamist” to indicate that yes, we are talking of reactionary,
manipulative politics not religion and spirituality. We don’t want
madrasa students used as cannon fodder any more.
And you always try to make sure your local struggles don’t get used to
paint Bangladesh as “the next Afghanistan” (as in Hironmoy Karlekar’s
alarmist book). Someone will always hijack your narrative for their
own agenda. But we need to keep plugging away. Small fights, small
The storks are still standing.