By Rahnuma Ahmed
November 17, 2015
Yasmin of Dinajpur: Potita Identity Fabricated By The Police
SHE was a child, only fourteen years old.
Yasmin had been given away to a middle class family in Dhaka city to work in their house as a domestic maid. On August 23, 1995, she left home to pick up their child from school but went away to the Gabtoli bus terminal instead. She had been longing to see her mother who lived in Dinajpur, but her employer had said she would have to wait until the Puja holidays.
I dug out my copy of Yasmin. Biplobheenotar kale ekti roktopaater shironam (‘Yasmin. The name for a bloodbath in times of revolutionlessness,’ 1996), a precious collection of writings, edited by journalist and researcher Altaf Parvez. Published by Sammilita Nari Shomaj (SNS), the lead article is a report by Parvez himself, narrating the painful incidents and context meticulously — Yasmin’s rape and murder by Thakurgaon policemen, the police’s portrayal of Yasmin as a ‘potita’ who had died in a traffic accident, the government’s highly-ridiculed press note, the inability of mainstream political parties to assess the public’s pent-up fury towards the political and civil administration, the first post-mortem report of Yasmin’s body which had ‘failed’ to find any signs of rape, exhumation of her body six days later for a second post-mortem, the imposition of curfew, common people setting up barricades in every para and moholla, setting fire to police stations in Birol, Setabganj, Kaharol, Phulbari, demanding the arrests of the alleged rapists ASI Moinul Islam, constable Sattar and van driver, constable Amrit Lal, the volatile situation gradually cooling down after the administration recalled police forces and replaced them with the Bangladesh Rifles.
“That Yasmin could be restless for her mother, that her mother would worry about her — people who belong to the ‘civil society’ view such things as excesses,” writes Anu Muhammad in his essay. “She knew very little about the practical world. That she would need money to go see her mother, that catching the [right] bus may not be easy, that she could encounter problems on her journey, these things hadn’t occurred to her.”
The bus reached Doshmile at 3:30am the next day, Yasmin had mistakenly gotten on a bus for Thakurgaon, 60km further than Dinajpur. The supervisor and helper of the bus left her with a Paan shop owner, instructing him to put her on a bus for Dinajpur once daylight had broken.
A police patrol van came by, on seeing Yasmin they stopped, asked her whereabouts, told her to get into the van; they would take her to Ramnagar and drop her home safely. A little crowd had formed, one of them spoke up, could they give him a lift as well, he too was going to Dinajpur. No, came the gruff reply. Yasmin had been reluctant; they ordered her into the van.
Several hundred yards later, the van had to slow down because of an oncoming bus. An eyewitness recounted later, a young girl had jumped out, the van had stopped, the policemen got down, hunted for her with a torch, found her. The van sped away.
Yasmin’s body was found after daybreak. She had been gang-raped and murdered. Witnesses say, her face was twisted, it faced west. Her right leg was raised above her left, her hands lay spread outward. Her tongue protruded, her eyes were open. The right jaw was smashed, there were signs of bleeding around her nose and mouth, her forehead was swollen, there was a cut on her head. Her ankles and toes were bloodied, in some places, it was raw, no skin. Her kameez was torn at the right armpit, there were signs of blood on her Shalwar and kameez, the back of her Shalwar was wet with blood.
Ramnagar exploded. Hesitant processions at first were followed by rallies. When the police came and broke the mike which was asking people to gather, the protests grew louder. When the police arrested demonstrators, several thousand people gheraoed the police station and freed the 37 who had been arrested. When the police conducted a lathi charge, the demonstrators refused to move.
The police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing seven: Meherab Ali Shamu (25), Abdul Kader (31), Sirajul Islam (35), Golap, Nannu, Julhaj, and a young boy who hung out at the railway station, whose name is not known. (The bodies of the last four were allegedly ‘disappeared’ by the police). In his moving contribution, Farhad Mazhar names the seven killed ‘Saat bhai champa’ (Seven brothers [turned into] Champa [flowers]), after the legendary folk tale of Bengal, made immortal among the literate through Thakurmar Jhuli, written and compiled by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder (1907).
Waves of protest swelled from Ramnagar to Dinajpur, from Dinajpur to Dhaka, and beyond. What had sparked these massive protests?
Had the first seeds of discontent been sown when the police had stripped Yasmin’s body naked in front of countless spectators to prepare the surat-e-hal report? Those present had protested, the police had been forced to resort to mild lathicharge.
Or, had Yasmin’s death burst open the lid of festering grievances against corruption and recklessness for which the locals blamed the triangle — the local MP Begum Khurshid Jahan Haq (‘chocolate’ apa, the-then prime minister Khaleda Zia’s sister), the deputy commissioner, and the police superintendent?
Or, was it because prime minister Khaleda Zia did not go to Dinajpur to express her sorrow (after all, eight people had died), and take visible action in response to peoples demands, but flew off to Beijing, as the head of the Bangladesh delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women, September 4–15, 1995 (causing senior journalist Faiz Ahmed to name his article, “Yasminer ‘Laasher Bojha’ Kadhe Niei Prodhan Montrir Beijing Jete Hochhe” (‘The prime minster goes to Beijing with the weight of Yasmin’s body on her shoulders’).
Or, was it because the police’s efforts at ‘damage control’ had backfired? Altaf Parvez provides details: Mahtab Hossain, acting officer in charge of Kotwali thana, and Monwar Hossain, acting officer in charge of Kaharol thana, gathered several prostitutes and brought them to the General Hospital (Yasmin’s body had been brought to the hospital for post-mortem). The prostitutes informed reporters and members of the public who were present that Yasmin was “one of them.” Her name was Banu; she had been missing for the last few days. The police super also arranged a press conference at the office of the Detective Branch; the prostitutes were present at the conference. Members of the local elite, including editors and journalists, were busily involved in the disinformation and damage limitation campaign, exposed by the daily Teesta’s headline of August 26, 1995: Raater bodhu Banur laash uddhar (translated, ‘Body of bride/lady of the night Banu discovered’).
Naila Khan, muktijoddha, medical doctor and a member of the SNS, who had gone to Dinajpur with other SNS members, writes in her essay, “In my professional life I have witnessed people’s misery, poverty, despair and defeat — but nothing had prepared me for my meeting with an unknown Yasmin’s mother.” Sharifa Begum told Naila that Yasmin had been very eager to pursue her studies, but schooling had been cut short after Yasmin completed Class Five. She had agreed to go away to Dhaka only after her mother had promised to save part of her earnings to send her to school a year later.
While Sammilita Nari Shomaj in their memorandum to the prime minister noted that “the police does not have the right to rape or kill even a prostitute,” Shah AMS Kibria (Awami League finance minister 1996–2001; severely injured in a grenade attack in 2005, Kibria bled to death because the-then BNP government had not arranged his evacuation by helicopter from Habiganj to Dhaka) was far more scathing in his contribution. He wrote, “The public must know whose fertile mind gave birth to the conspiracy of proving that Yasmin was a potita. The conspiracy was hatched to confuse the public. People have to be told the names of the officers who were involved in this loathsome trickery; they should be given exemplary punishment to caution all other officers… This conspiracy gives us some idea about the mentality of those who committed the crime. They must have thought that if Yasmin could be proven to be a potita, it would help lessen their crime. They must have thought raping a potita, even killing her is not of much consequence.”
August 24 is commemorated as the Prevention of Violence against Women Day in Bangladesh. As several other contributors to the volume point out, it is not only the physical (sexual) violence to which she was subjected, but also the ideological slander after her death, which shocked people. Still does.
Where does the CP Gang stand in relation to social movements post-independence? Have they heard of the Yasmin-Dinajpur movement? (it was probably the final nail in the coffin of the BNP government, 1991-1996). Do they claim it as their historical legacy ie, a people’s movement which had revolted against Yasmin’s rape, killing, and sexual slander?
Or, do they believe, like the local administration would have us believe — with the full backing of Dhaka — that Yasmin had died because she had jumped from the van, and that she was a prostitute?
How can it be the former if they occupy the same ideological universe (“mentality”) as that of the perpetrators in Thakurgaon, their local bosses (‘chocolate apa,’ SP, DC, members of the local elite), and the Dhaka bosses then (the home minister, officials at the home ministry)?
Altaf Pervez (ed), Yasmin. Biplobheenotar kale ekti roktopaater shironam (‘Yasmin. The name for a bloodbath in times of revolutionlessness’), Dhaka: Sammilita Nari Shomaj, 1996.
To be continued.