Battle over blasphemy deepens divisions in Bangladesh

The charred remains of a bus damaged during Monday morning's clashes between security forces and Islamists in Dhaka.
 
 
As the death toll rises to at least 38 after Sunday and Monday’s crackdown on Islamist protesters in Bangladesh, an Observer in the capital, who filmed the aftermath of these clashes, explains how divided the country has become.
 
Following a call by the hard-line Islamic group Hefajat-e-Islam, at least 200,000 people took to the streets of Dhaka to try to pressure the government into adopting strict blasphemy laws, notably the death penalty for bloggers they accuse of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s main Islamic party, claims that hundreds of people were killed when the police broke up the protests. The police, meanwhile, have counted 38 dead so far, and said dozens more were being treated in local hospitals. They also announced the arrest of 194 Hefajat-e-Islam activists. 
 
The BNP and its Islamist allies have called for a two-day nationwide strike, starting on Wednesday, to protest what they call a “mass killing”.
 
Our Observer Shawn Ahmed filmed this short video report in central Dhaka on Monday afternoon, showing the aftrermath of the clashes. 
Contributors

“Despite destruction all around us, the police told me nobody had been hurt, that there was nothing but light violence!”

Shawn Ahmed is a Canadian-Bangladeshi activist who lives in Dhaka. He runs this YouTube channel.
 
Monday afternoon, I went to Baitul Mukkaram mosque, near which there had been violent clashes. I saw a burnt-out bus, and concrete dividers smashed into little bits. The mall across the street was completely trashed, and a nearby marketplace was in smoulders. There was a horde of policemen there, so I asked some of them, were there injured protesters? Or injured police? They told me nobody had been hurt, that there was nothing but light violence! After much difficulty, and with the help of a policeman who apparently hadn’t been briefed about not talking to curious activists, I figured out which hospital injured protesters had been taken to. There, no medical personnel would talk to me, but I managed to speak to some men who had been shot – one in the eye, another in the hips. I also went to a morgue, where the police showed me four corpses they said were of protesters. I also saw police bringing in more corpses, but they claimed it was unrelated to the clashes.
 
Ahmed filmed this short video report at Dhaka Medical College and Hospital on Monday.
 
“Many people don’t want any documentation of events that could portray the Islamists as being in any way victims”
 
After putting photos and videos of all this online, anti-Islamist activists came at me with pitchforks, metaphorically speaking. Many people don’t want any documentation of events that could portray the Islamists as being in any way victims. It’s really disheartening to see how much both sides demonise each other. As a gay Muslim man, I’m obviously not a huge fan of the Islamists’ agenda; I don’t think “atheist bloggers” should be given the death penalty nor do I want sharia law. However, so-called “secular” activists are not exactly pacifists either – last February, they organised protests to call for the death penalty for a radical Islamic leader who had been given a life sentence for crimes perpetrated during the 1971 war of independence. I heard many people in these protests chanting things like, “Light a fire, hang him!” Both sides are really good at incendiary rhetoric.
 
Bangladesh is a culturally diverse country – you can live a very modern, Western life in the city, and then go out to the villages and see families living a strict Muslim life, with no TV or radio, with kids studying in the madrassas. These cultural schisms are growing deeper and deeper, and I’m afraid that without a Desmond Tutu-type of leader that can embrace all sides, the situation will only get worse. I’m particularly worried about rumours that are currently circulating between Islamists via text messages and the radio, claiming that the police dumped 50,000 bodies in a river – whether it’s true or not, and it certainly seems unlikely, this could very well create a second wave of violence.
 
The relatives of this injured man told our Observer that he was shot in the leg during the protests. Photo by Shawn Ahmed.

Comments

A bit easy to say "both

A bit easy to say "both partis guilty".
According to your stats 200,000 people demonstrated, which mean in this 1,5 million populated country a certain ideology is dominant and accepted by all.
You cannot talk about "islamists" when such a large majority of people from the grass-root population is demonstrating, they are but muslims.

And thanks to France 24 not to censor my post.

Totally respect how you are

Totally respect how you are standing up for the truth.. Rarely in Bangladesh do I see youth not blindly siding some or the other group. Hats off to u Mr. Shawn Ahmed!

Thank you!

Thank you for this wonderful and supportive comment :)

Contains misleading and wrong info

1. The name of the hospital is 'Dhaka Medical College & Hospital', not "Dhaka University Hospital'
[Because u don't even know the name of the largest and oldest medical college hospital of Bangladesh, I'm guessing u had to work really hard to 'figure out which hospital injured protesters had been taken to'. Asking any taxi-driver of Dhaka would have saved you that trouble.]

2. 'There, no medical personnel would talk to me, but I managed to speak to some men who had been shot'
- I'm not sure if doctors in Canada are allowed to talk to strangers about their patients rather than actually treating them; but in DMCH, they're not. That's not their duty, and that's a breech of D-P confidentiality. There's an administrative office block in the same building that you've been to, and there're people who could've answered your queries in a civil way. Instead, like many attention-seekers, you've opted to peek in casualty (accident & emergency) ward and actually film in that ward- without permission (I'm guessing) - taking chance of the lack of proper security. I'm not sure how that helps the world, but from my personal experience of having worked in that ward & hospital myself, I know that it certainly does not help the patients. A little less activism and a little more sense, I'm sure, would have been much more appreciated.

3. 'I also went to a morgue, where the police showed me four corpses they said were of protesters. I also saw police bringing in more corpses, but they claimed it was unrelated to the clashes.'
- What are you trying to imply? That's one of the only two mortuaries in a city of 12+million (Dhaka) where medico-legal autopsies can be performed. Again, a little more factual knowledge would've been much more appreciated before sensationalizing, thereby misrepresenting .

Correction

Hello,

Thank you for pointing out that the full name of the hospital is Dhaka Medical College and Hospital. This has been corrected in the article.

For the record, this was the error of the journalist who wrote the caption, not the Observer. Thanks

Thanks for the corection

[For the record; try checking 0.06-0.09 of the video, where the observer introduces the place as 'Dhaka Medical University Hospital' - which is also wrong and refers to a different project - save the caption writer.]

I personally am a big fan of citizen journalism, but ethics and sense should not, must not be put at stake.

Bests.

Thanks

Thanks Observers team. I had responded to this commenter earlier and I had assumed he had taken umbrage with how I referred to Dhaka Medical College in the above video. A lot was going on that night and I wasn't sure how exactly I referred to Dhaka Medical College in the video. This is compounded by the fact that YouTube is blocked in Bangladesh - making quick reviews somewhat impossible. I was not aware of the typo by the journalist but stand by the fact that - even as a typo - the average reader would understand what is being referenced. Dhaka Medical College exists in the same area (or campus of sorts) as Dhaka University.

Response to Criticism

Hi Sanjoy,

I'm glad to see that that moderators here at France 24 have approved your comment. And I'm also glad to see that your comment is of a higher more civil tone and respectful decorum than the tweets you were sending my way earlier. But just barely. In response to your criticisms, comments, claims, etc.,. I'd like to address each point:

To your first point: I was a student at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Sometimes I call that university just "Notre Dame". Other times I bastardize the name by saying "Notre Dame University". Sometimes I call it "ND". Even though none of those variants are official names. I did the same in this case because most people will understand what I am referring to - and not nitpick it. You, of course, are the exception to the rule.

But, more importantly, finding Dhaka Medical College & Hospital was not the issue. Rather, as you are well aware, there are many hospitals in Bangladesh. Some closer to the violence than Dhaka Medical College & Hospital. We needed confirmation as to where the injured and dead were being sent. In fact, one group of people we interviewed actually tried to take their injured friend to not one but two other hospitals - and were rejected. Once we knew which hospital was receiving/accepting the injured and dead - we went there on our own. Not taxi cab driver directions required.

To your second point: Setting aside your personal dig that I did this for "attention seeking" and your insulting claim that I failed to follow filming and photographing consent protocols, I'd like to address in further detail the level of cooperation that medical staff provided us. We were not asking medical staff to break confidentiality of any particular patient. Rather, what we were seeking was general statistical information as to the overall crisis. How many injured from this incident have they received? How many are they treating? How many have died? How many dead did they receive? We wanted macro-level information - not micro-details.

In a historical crisis of national (and international concern), it is not unprecedented or unexpected that such questions would be asked. Or that such attention would be drawn. I would also like to point out that medical staff were helpful in directing us to which injured in a particular room were or were not from the recent violence. However, such assistance was provided to us off-camera at their request. Medical staff were also helpful in pointing out which families of injured were or were not comfortable being filmed. There are photos/videos and people I met you will never see. Why? Because consent was not given. But, thank you for making spurious claims to my integrity and intentions.

To your final claim: What struck me about the corpses that I saw was that they were dressed very differently from the Islamic protestors that I saw prior to the violence - as well as the clothing of the injured protestors in the emergency ward. Had I not been overwhelmed at the smell of death, standing in pools of human blood, I would have perhaps investigated that other morgue and taken a look at where those other bodies were taken.

Stepping back for a moment, I think your nitpicking on how I referred to the hospital, your allegations that I filmed incorrectly, and your claims of sensationalization are because... well... like many people who aren't fans of these Islamic extremists (not that I am a fan - I'm not). As such, you don't like this POV being shared. You would rather these photos, videos, and this story never have been told. Perhaps because it humanizes them. And to humanize them - means it's harder to demonize them. And, to compensate and to hold onto your world view, you must now demonize me and criticize me.

Re: Response to Criticism

Hi Shawn (@Uncultured):
Thanks for your reply. I have the following comments about the ‘pertinent’ parts of it:

1. FYI, there are lots of hospitals / clinics in Dhaka that has one / more of the following few ‘catchy’ words in their names (Dhaka, Medical, College, Bangladesh, Central, International, University) – for various (notorious) reasons (including deceptive branding) beyond the scope of this discussion.
However, like you said; DMCH, the name itself, was not the issue to begin with. Spot on! What made it an issue was what you wrote. While skimming through the article, what made me scroll back and check this basic info was the trouble you’ve described (and reiterated in response) to figure out where the injured and dead were being sent to. For most locals, DMCH would have been the obvious choice in this scenario, due to prevailing medico-legal ‘customs’ (including private clinics ‘rejecting’ ‘non-life-threatening’ bullet injury cases as you mentioned, details beyond scope of this discussion). Again, try asking 10 taxi-drivers from different locations of Dhaka, ‘where do bullet injury patients go to?’ – if you want to verify that. Also, published interviews of DMCH and Baraka General Hospital personnel after this incident can help confirm this. Going back to the point, I literally checked back only to assess your knowledge about what you're writing, and clearly, I wasn’t very impressed with what I saw.

2. A little background: at any given moment, between 20-200 (est.) doctors, with other medical personnel, are on duty at DMCH emergency (A&E) dept, and patients are taken cared of by the first available medical personnel, as they come along. Amongst ~1000+(est.) patients received there a day, only a few are under care of one particular doctor on duty. There are other dedicated personnel who take care of administrative (solely / with medical or supervisory role) issues including PR and statistics.
Now that you’ve read that, and have mentioned that you’re actually after ‘general statistical information as to the overall crisis’; does the sentence ‘There, no medical personnel would talk to me, but I managed to speak to some men who had been shot’ make any sense to you?
Did you even ask any appropriate personnel? (I ask this because I myself saw tv channels featuring interviews with the resident surgeon & the director of DMCH)

The only reason for filming within such a ward (where medical personnel are fighting to treat critical A&E patients using the limited resources available) that makes sense to me is if it’s necessary for showing something of at least similar, if not more, dire straits that can not be shown by filming elsewhere – your face, I’m afraid, doesn’t count as one such thing to me.

There are regulations at DMCH that need to be followed to obtain permission to film within a ward which, unfortunately, can’t always be enforced due to limited resources. I can’t help doubt how many of those you’ve followed; the latest reason being, when I see someone saying ‘There are photos/videos and people I met you will never see. Why? Because consent was not given’ – I can’t help thinking: isn't consent supposed to be taken PRIOR to documentation and not prior to distribution here? I’ll stop here, sparing the details.

3. I can see that you’ve been to the DMCH mortuary and were overwhelmed by seeing dead-bodies (that one might expect to see in a mortuary). I also notice that you’ve observed a difference in the dresses that those bodies were in from what you're expecting them to be wearing. What I can’t see is how are these related to ‘I also saw police bringing in more corpses, but they claimed it was unrelated to the clashes’. Is the latter just a statement and you’re not trying to imply that the police were lying? Or, are you trying to claim that the bodies which the police showed you were sham and they actually hid some dead-bodies in ‘the other’ mortuary? I’m not aware of any ‘other’ mortuaries (with autopsy facilities) in Dhaka, apart from DMCH and Mitford. Regardless, I can’t see why someone willing to hide a dead-body would take it to a mortuary, to register before hiding!? This implication disturbs me, and I sincerely hope to be corrected here.

Before I end, I’ve the right to point out that; I’ve not shared my likings / thoughts / POV with you, apart from the aforementioned comments and can’t therefore be held accountable for what you think of those to be. I personally think, the rest of your response that I’ve not responded to, albeit objectionable, doesn’t merit my reaction.

[For the records:
I don’t know the writer, I’m not interested about his personal life, and my first tweet to him (& @france24) was in response to this article, which said:
‘’’’; for which he blocked me; interested people can dig out reference through twitter]

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