Bangladesh Must Release Political Prisoner & Eminent Photojournalist Dr Shahidul Alam From Prison

Internationally-renowned  Bangladeshi scholar, activist  and photojournalist Dr Shahidul Alam has been badly beaten and imprisoned as a result of giving an Al Jazeera interview and posting videos in relation to Bangladeshi student  road safety protests and the violent Bangladeshi Government response. This gross human rights violation has prompted international demands from media and humanitarian organizations, notably Amnesty International, for his immediate and unconditional release.

Dr Shahidul Alam (born 1955, Bangladesh) is an internationally famous  Bangladeshi photojournalist, teacher and activist. His work has been published in media worldwide over 40 years. Dr Shahidul  Alam graduated from the University of Dhaka and obtained a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of London. He founded the Drik Picture Library (1989), the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in Dhaka (1998), and the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival (1999) in Dhaka. Dr Shahidul Alam is a visiting professor at the University of Sunderland, UK, and is an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University, Melbourne. His books include “Nature’s Fury” (2007) and “My Journey as a Witness” (2011).  Shahidul  Alam was awarded the Shilpakala Padak by the President of Bangladesh (2014) and the Humanitarian Award from the Lucie Awards (2018).

Internationally-renowned Dr Shahidul Alam has not only documented Bangladeshi life for 4 decades but has also helped to create a generation of other Bangladeshi photographers.  Notwithstanding  his national and international eminence, Shahidul  Alam was arrested, badly beaten and imprisoned  on 5 August  2018  after posting live videos on Facebook and giving an interview to Al Jazeera in relation to the violent response of the Bangladeshi Government to Bangladesh road safety protests by students. Media and humanitarian organizations around the world have called for his release [1, 2]. As set out below, human rights aside there are several further serious general implications of this matter.

1. Great artists and writers are national and world treasures for their powerful humane insights.
Great artists and writers uniquely grasp the essence and heart of fellow humans and their country and in that sense are national treasures to be valued and assiduously cared for. Great artists and writers also have a universality that moves all humanity. Thus Rabindranath Tagore  was a great Bengali writer, poet, musician and artist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913  in recognition of this universality [3]. Indeed for 3 decades in my biochemical laboratory (like  Dr Shahidul Alam I am an artist and also have a PhD in the chemical sciences) I had the following  inspiring message from Rabindranath Tagore on my wall: “We have come into this world to accept it, not merely to know it. We may become powerful through knowledge, but we attain fullness through sympathy” [4, 5]. We have a moral and intellectual imperative to explore and understand ourselves and also to understand others through empathic inquiry, but these fundamental humane processes  are so often perverted by religious or ideological fanaticism. Thus, for example, progressive American literature professor Walter Davis’ “Death’s Dream Kingdom. The American Psyche since 9-11” is about how sensible, honest humans attempt to understand themselves (through earnest, honest, painful  introspection) and others (through empathic internalizing and analyzing of the suffering of others) – as compared to the psychotic,  “ideology-driven” simplicity of “compulsory happiness”, “endless demand”, “axiomatic rightness”, “certainty- and guarantee-demanding”, denial, avoidance of empathy and introspection, and  violent externalizing of inner fears by both the Religious Right and contemporary secular  Corporatism and neoliberalism of America [6, 7].

The great Bengali movie director Satyajit Ray moved the whole world by his deeply empathic  portrayal of ordinary Bengali lives in his famous Apu Trilogy of “Pather Panchali” (“Song of the Little Road”)  (1955),  “Aparajito” (“The Unvanquished”) (1956) and “Apur Sansar” (“The World of Apu”) (1959) [8]. An Australian from the remote island state of Tasmania, I was swept way by the music, passion and tragedy of “Jalsaghar” (“The Music Room”) (1958) [9], having been introduced over 50 years ago to Satyajit Ray’s movies by my Fiji-born dear late wife Zareena (nee Zareena Lateef) who had  a Bihari and Bengali family background. Satyajit Ray’s powerful movie “Oshoni Shongket” (“Distant Thunder”) (1973)  [10] describes Bengali   village life during the 1942-1945 WW2 Bengali Holocaust (WW2 Bengal Famine, WW2 Indian Holocaust) in which  the British with Australian complicity deliberately starved 6-7 million Indians to death in Bengal and the neighbouring  Indian provinces  of Assam, Bihar and Orissa. Australia was complicit in this immense atrocity by withholding food from its huge war-time grain stores from starving India [11-35]. An anti-racist Jewish Australian of Hungarian and Anglo-Celtic origin,  I was profoundly moved by Satyajit Ray’s movie and also utterly appalled that in a prosperous and ostensibly “open society” I had no knowledge of this WW2 atrocity that occurred at the same time as  the WW2 Jewish Holocaust (5-6 million Jews killed by violence or deprivation) in which  all but a dozen of my wider Hungarian family perished [20].

While the British and Australians still  disgracefully keep  the WW2 Bengali Holocaust atrocity well hidden  from general  public perception [20], 1998 Economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen , who lived through the Bengal Famine, cogently described this man-made disaster as a failure of the fundamental human  “entitlement” to sustenance – food was available but the price of rice rose enormously  due to a number of factors  and those who could not afford  to buy rice simply starved under a capitalist colonial order.  Professor Amartya Sen: “I think the fact that famines happen when they’re so extraordinarily easy to prevent – nothing in the world is easier to prevent – affects me. Being a Bengali I can’t say that it adds especially to that because this seems to me to be a basic human sympathy at seeing suffering all across the world which are completely needless’ [22].

Just as the scholarship of Amartya Sen and others exposed and documented the horrors of the WW2 Bengali Holocaust [11-35], so the great movie director Satyajit Ray used film to powerfully dramatize the human catastrophe [10], and the great Bengali artist Zainul Abedin  used art to record graphic images of the starving victims of the WW2 Bengali Holocaust [36-38]. Art provides a transcendent record  of the human experience, whether the Ronald Searle drawings of British, Indian and Australian POWs of the Japanese in WW2 Singapore  [39], Francisco Goya’s drawings of the horrors of the Napoleonic war in Spain  [40], Zainul Abedin’s drawings of Bengali famine victims [36-38] or Shahidul Alam’s 4-decade photographic record of the lives of impoverished but vigorous and courageous Bangladeshis [1].

2. Untrammelled free expression is crucial for rational risk management, societal security and disaster prevention.  
The imprisonment of  eminent photographer Dr Shahidul Alam is gross human rights abuse and censorship that cuts at the heart of societal security. Rational risk management that is crucial for societal safety successively involves (a) accurate information, (b) scientific analysis that involves the critical testing of potentially falsifiable hypotheses, and (c) informed systemic change to minimize risk. This science-based protocol is typically perverted by ignorant and/or authoritarian people by (a) lying, intimidation and censorship, (b) anti-science spin involving the selective use of asserted facts to support a partisan position, and (c) spin-based responses, typically involving  “blame and shame” that critically inhibits crucially important primary  reportage. The imprisonment of photographers, artists,  writers, scientists  and activists simply blocks the process of science-based risk management. Art, including  photography, can present reality more cogently and insightfully than mere words and statistics. Accordingly, the  muzzling of photographers prevents sensible, science-based  consideration of social realities and societal risks.
A fundamental parameter relating to the success or otherwise of social policies is avoidable mortality from deprivation (avoidable deaths, , excess deaths, excess mortality, premature deaths, untimely deaths that should not have happened). Avoidable mortality can be readily estimated from UN demographic data [41] as the difference between the actual deaths in a country over a particular period and the deaths expected for a peaceful, decently-governed country with the same demographics (birth rate and age distribution). Thus the annual death rates for Bangladesh and India are  5.3 and 7.4 deaths per thousand of population , respectively, but the estimated death rate for peaceful, well-governed and high birth-rate countries is about 4 per thousand per year, this yielding avoidable death rates for Bangladesh and India of 1.3 and 3.4 deaths per 1,000 of population per year, respectively  [42]. Accordingly, one can estimate from UN Population Division data that  presently annual avoidable mortality  in Bangladesh (population 166 million)   totals about 0.2 million – as compared to 4.6 million for India (population 1,346 million) and effectively zero for China (population 1,379 million). Presently,  each year 16 million people die avoidably from deprivation on Spaceship Earth with rich, First World  One Percenters in charge of the flight deck [42].

Human rights aside, with this high level of annual avoidable  deaths from deprivation Bangladesh cannot afford to further jeopardize rational risk management  by censoring, intimidating and incarcerating dissenting opinion. And, of course, abusively imprisoning eminent,  world-renowned citizens like  Dr Shahidul Alam is a very bad look internationally  and a serious threat  to all Bangladeshis and indeed to all humanity.

Amnesty International has launched a petition demanding the unconditional release of Dr Shahidul Alam: “ World-renowned photographer and social activist, Shahidul Alam, is facing 14 years in prison simply for giving a media interview. His crime? Shahidul spoke with Al-Jazeera, criticising the Bangladesh government for its violent repression of popular student protests calling for safer roads in the wake of a tragic bus accident. Shahidul photographed and live-streamed the protests, which saw more than 200 students injured by police. Five journalists covering the protests were also attacked by men in plainclothes wielding machetes and iron-bars. This is the Bangladesh government attempting to silence dissent.  On the night of 5 August, shortly after giving the interview, plainclothes police seized Shahidul from his Dhaka apartment. There are grave fears for Shahidul’s safety. When he appeared in court, Shahidul was injured and unable to walk. He has been moved to a hospital for treatment, but remains in custody. Police custody in Bangladesh is notorious for ill-treatment, torture and even death. We must urgently pressure authorities to unconditionally release Shahidul.Shahidul’s work has won widespread global acclaim. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Melbourne’s RMIT. Let’s show Bangladeshi authorities that the world is watching. Please, sign the petition calling for Shahidul’s immediate and unconditional release” [43].

In conclusion,  one hopes that the Bangladeshi authorities  will urgently respond to pleas from good people from all around the world to unconditionally release eminent Bangladeshi photographer Dr Shahidul Alam from imprisonment. Please sign the Amnesty International petition [43].  Free Shahidul Alam!

[1]. “Shahidul Alam: Jailed journalist’s powerful photos of Bangladesh”, BBC News, 15 August 2018: .
[2]. “Shahidul Alam”, Wikipedia: .
[3]. “Rabindranath Tagore”, Wikipedia: .
[4]. Rabindranath Tagore quoted in  Henry Miller,  “Moloch” or “This Gentile World” , Grove Press, 1992.
[5]. Gideon Polya, “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, that includes a succinct history of every country and is now available for free perusal on the web:  .
[6]. Walter Davis, “Death’s Dream Kingdom. The American Psyche since 9-11”, Pluto, London, 2006.
[7]. Gideon Polya, “Book Review: “Death’s Dream Kingdom. The American psyche since 9-11” by Walter Davis, MWC News, 15 August 2006: .
[8]. “Satyajit Ray”, Wikipedia: .
[9]. “Jalsaghar”,  Wikipedia:
[10]. “Distant Thunder (1973 film)”, Wikipedia: .
[11]. N.G. Jog, “Churchill’s Blind Spot: India” (New Book Company, Bombay, 1944 [that describes the WW2 Bengal Famine as a “holocaust”, this being the first book to have described a WW2 atrocity as a “holocaust”].
[12]. K.C. Ghosh, “Famines in Bengal 1770-1943” (National Council of Education, Calcutta, 1944, 2nd edition 1987.
[13]. Sen, “Rural Bengal in Ruins” (translated by Chakravarty), 1945.
[14]. T. Das, “Bengal Famine (1943) as Revealed in a Survey of Destitutes of Calcutta”, University of Calcutta, Calcutta, 1949.
[15]. P. Moon (editor), “Wavell, the Viceroy’s Journal”, Oxford University Press, 1973.
[16]. A. Sen, “Poverty and Famines. An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation”, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981.
[17]. A. Sen, “Famine Mortality: A Study of the Bengal Famine of 1943” in Hobshawn, E. (1981) (editor), Peasants In History. Essays in Honour of David Thorner (Oxford University Press, New Delhi).
[18]. Paul Greenough,“Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the Famine of 1943-1944”, Oxford University Press, 1982.
[19]. J. Dreze  and Amartya Sen (1989),“Hunger and Public Action” , Clarendon, Oxford, 1989.
[20]. Gideon Polya “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History. Colonial rapacity, holocaust denial and the crisis in biological sustainability”, G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 1998, 2008, now available for free perusal on the web:  .
[21]. Colin Mason, “A Short History of Asia. Stone Age to 2000AD”, Macmillan, 2000.
[22]. Michael Portillo, presenter, with  Dr Gideon Polya (La Trobe University) , Dr Sanjoy Bhattacharya (Welcome Institute,  London) , Professor Christopher Bayly (Cambridge University) and Professor Amartya Sen (1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics, Harvard, US and formerly Cambridge, UK)  et al. on the BBC Broadcast “Bengal Famine”, Open Learn, 14 January 2008: .
[23]. Cormac O Grada,“Famine a short history” , Princeton University Press, 2009.
[24]. Madhusree Muckerjee , “Churchill’s Secret War. The British Empire and the ravaging of India during World War II” , Basic Books, New York, 2010.
[25]. Thomas Keneally, “Three Famines”, Vintage House, Australia, 2011.
[26]. Gideon Polya, “WW2 Bengali Holocaust: “Churchill’s Secret War” By Madhusree Mukerjee”,  Countercurrents, 13 June, 2011: .
[27]. Gideon Polya, “Australia And Britain Killed 6-7 Million Indians In WW2 Bengal Famine”,  Countercurrents, 29 September, 2011: . .
[28]. Gideon Polya, “Economist Mahima Khanna,   Cambridge Stevenson Prize And Dire Indian Poverty”,  Countercurrents, 20 November, 2011: .
[29]. Lizzie Collingham, “The Taste of War. World War II and the Battle for Food” (The Penguin Press, New York, 2012.
[30]. Gideon Polya, “Review: “The Cambridge History Of Australia” Ignores  Australian Involvement In 30 Genocides”, Countercurrents, 14 October, 2013: .
[31]. Horst H. Geerken, “Hitler’s Asian Adventure”, Books on Demand, 2015 [“28. The Bengali Holocaust”, pages 335-336].
[32]. Gideon Polya, “UK Zionist Historian Sir Martin Gilbert (1936-2015) Variously Ignored Or Minimized WW2 Bengali Holocaust”, Countercurrents, 19 February, 2015: .
[33]. Shashi Tharoor, “Inglorious Empire. What the British did to India”, Scribe, 2017.
[34]. Gideon Polya, “Review: “Inglorious Empire. What the British did to India”, Countercurrents, 8 September 2017: .
[35].Gideon Polya, “Richard Attenborough’s UK “Gandhi” movie ignored UK’s WW2 Bengali Holocaust”, Countercurrents, 15 March 2018: .
[36]. “Zainul Abedin Famine drawings, 1943”: .
[37]. Rosa Maria Falvo (editor), Abul Monsur,  Nazrul Islam and Abul Hasnat,  “Great Masters of Bangladesh: Zainul Abedin”, Skira, 2013. (Amazon: ,
[38]. “Zainul Abedin”, Wikipedia: .
[39]. “The war drawings of Ronald Searle”, Illustration Chronicles: .
[40]. “Disasters of war”, Wikipedia: .
[41]. UN Population Division: .
[42]. Gideon Polya, “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, that includes a succinct history of every country and is now available for free perusal on the web:  .
[43]. Amnesty International, “Bangladesh: release world-renowned photographer Shahidul Alam”: .
Dr Gideon Polya taught science students at a major Australian university for 4 decades. He published some 130 works in a 5 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text “Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds” (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London , 2003). He has published “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950” (G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007: ); see also his contributions “Australian complicity in Iraq mass mortality” in “Lies, Deep Fries & Statistics” (edited by Robyn Williams, ABC Books, Sydney, 2007:
) and “Ongoing Palestinian Genocide” in “The Plight of the Palestinians (edited by William Cook, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010: ). He has published a revised and updated 2008 version of his 1998 book “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History” (see:  ) as biofuel-, globalization- and climate-driven global food price increases threaten a greater famine catastrophe than the man-made famine in British-ruled India that killed 6-7 million Indians in the “forgotten” World War 2 Bengal Famine (see recent BBC broadcast involving Dr Polya, Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen and others:  ;  Gideon Polya:  ; Gideon Polya Writing: ; Gideon Polya, Wikipedia: ) . When words fail one can say it in pictures – for images of Gideon Polya’s huge paintings for the Planet, Peace, Mother and Child see: and  .




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