Bangladeshi photographer, writer, and activist Shahidul Alam believes that his country’s political climate has created a “culture of fear and intolerance” that has led to numerous murders and disappearances over the last few decades. Reflecting on the death of a prominent blogger earlier this year, Alam wrote: “With ‘crossfires’ and ‘disappearances’ being tacitly supported by the government; with high ranking politicians and other law enforcement authorities endorsing ‘shoot to kill’ policies; with dissenters of any form feeling the full weight of the judiciary and the executive weighing down on them; with prominent politicians of all parties reduced to becoming sycophants and servile followers, the only ones empowered are the law enforcers themselves.”
Through his art, Alam has worked to challenge this status quo and the impunity of the perpetrators. Several of his projects have focused on the unsolved case of Kalpana Chakma, an early victim of the Bangladeshi authorities’ politically motivated abuses. Teaming up with Drik Gallery as part of its “No More” campaign, Alam’s “Kalpana’s Warriors” is the third project of his series meant to apply pressure on the government to complete the investigation into Chakma’s case. The exhibition features portraits of individuals who have continually questioned the Bangladeshi government. The portraits are printed on straw mats, which play prominent roles in the everyday lives of Chakma’s people. The images were burned into the mats using a laser beam; this process is meant to represent the incident prior to Kalpana Chakma’s disappearance wherein the military set fire to several villages near her home. Included below are two excerpts, one from “Kalpana’s Warriors” and the other from the first part of Alam’s series, “Searching for Kalpana.”
By Shahidul Alam
This fiery, courageous, outspoken young woman who had dared to demand that she, as an indigenous woman of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, also had rights; had the audacity to speak out against military occupation by her own army; had the temerity to insist that as a citizen of a free nation, she too needed to be treated as an equal; was someone the state wanted us to forget. Most of all they wanted us to forget that  years ago, in the early hours of the morning of June 12, 1996, she had been abducted at gunpoint by our own military.
Many versions have been presented. That it hadn’t really happened, though there were numerous witnesses. That she had eloped and had been found in India, though there was not a shred of evidence to back the claim. That Lieutenant Ferdous, the principal accused in the abduction, hadn’t even been there.
Split along clear divides between the indigenous Paharis and the plainland Bangali ‘settlers,’ very different stories are presented. What is significant, however, is that only one version, that of the military-backed Bangali ‘settlers,’ seems to have been taken into account. That even today,  years after her abduction, Lieutenant Ferdous has never been questioned by the police. That aside from Kalpana, Lieutenant Ferdous has been the only key player we have been unable to trace. The military, it appears, has no record of him. He too has ‘disappeared.’
They told me you were quiet. But I felt the rage in your silence. That when you spoke, they rose above themselves. But I felt their fear. That they held you amid them. But I felt their loneliness. They pointed to the Koroi tree where you would all meet. The banyan tree under which you spoke. Ever so powerfully. They pointed to the mud floor, where you slept. I touched the mat that you had rested upon, and I knew I had found the vessel that must hold your image.
New settlements with glistening tin roofs dot the hillsides. According to Amnesty International, as of June 2013 the Bangladeshi government had still not honored the terms of the peace accord nor addressed the Jumma people’s concerns over the return of their land. Amnesty estimates that there are currently 90,000 internally displaced Jumma families.
They had tried to erase you, your people, your memory. They had torched your homes and when coercion failed, when you remained defiant, they took you away, in the dead of night.
An abandoned typewriter in the room where Kalpana and her comrades used to meet.
The leaves burned as the soldiers stood and watched. The same leaves they weave to make your mat. The same leaves I shall burn, to etch your image. Will the burning mat hold your pain? Will the charred leaves hold your anger? Will the image rising from the crisp ashen leaves reignite us? Will you return, Kalpana?
Pahari protesters could previously go the GOC’s [General Officer Commanding; equivalent of a governor] office to express their grievances. Today, in Khagrachori, they no longer have that access.
The Shalpa Mor in Khagrachori was also a center of protest. Pahari protesters are no longer allowed there, though Bangali settlers have access, says Kabita Chakma, former president of the Hill Women’s Federation.
For nineteen years I have waited, my unseen sister. For nineteen years they have waited, your warriors. Pahari, Bangali, men, women, young, old. Was it what you said? What you stood for? Was it because you could see beyond the land, and language, the shape of one’s eyes and see what it meant to be a citizen of a free nation? For Pahari, Bangali, Bihari, man, woman, hijra, rich, poor, destitute, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, Animist.
Posters in the meeting room where Kalpana and her comrades used to gather. Khagrachori.
You had reminded us that a nation that fought oppression, could not rule by oppressing. That a people that fought for a language, could not triumph by suppressing another’s. That the martyrs who died, so we might be free, did not shed their blood, so we could become tyrants. That we who overcame the bullets and bayonets of soldiers, must never again be ruled through the barrel of a gun.
That, Kalpana, is what binds us. That is why Kalpana, you are not a Pahari, or a woman, or a Chakma, or a Buddhist, but each one of us. For there can be no freedom that is built on the pain of the other. No friendship that relies on fear. No peace at the muzzle of a gun.
These, Kalpana, are your warriors. They have engaged in different ways, at different levels, sometimes with different beliefs. Some have stayed with you from the beginning. Others have drifted. They have not always shared political beliefs. But for you, Kalpana, my unseen sister, they fight as one.
Shahidul Alam’s next exhibition of “Kalpana’s Warriors” opens in Delhi on Jan. 30.
Shahidul Alam is a widely exhibited and published photographer, writer, curator, and activist. In addition to setting up Drik, Pathshala, Chobi Mela, and Majority World, Alam is a professor at Sunderland University in the U.K. and an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. He has also chaired the international jury of World Press Photo.
[Photos courtesy of Shahidul Alam / Drik / Majority World]