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Sep 01 2009

Photojournalist Seized at India-Bangladesh Border

by Hanae Ko

The India-Bangladesh border where SHAHIDUL ALAM was detained on June, 2009. Courtesy Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.

On June 15, the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) detained Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam after he was found taking pictures of the India-Bangladesh border near Rowmari, India. Alam was held for six hours before being released to the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), a paramilitary force that guards the border, which sued him for illegal intrusion.

Alam, founder of Dhaka-based photo agency Drik, entered Rowmari on June 15 as part of a film project covering the trans-boundary Brahmaputra River, which originates in southern Tibet and empties into the Bay of Bengal. Along with two colleagues from Drik, Alam had planned to photograph the river where it crosses from India to Bangladesh. In a June 22 interview with the Dhaka newspaper New Age, Alam recounted how after hours of traveling, the party ended up at the India-Bangladesh border fence, where they encountered BSF troops, who beckoned Alam from the other side. “It wasn’t sensible to do anything other than comply,” said Alam, who described how 52 Bangladeshi civilians had been gunned down by the BSF in separate incidents during the previous six months. “When I got close to the gate, they opened it and several soldiers ran out and dragged me across.” His companions, meanwhile, managed to retreat and take shelter in a nearby house.

Once in custody, Alam claimed to be a British photojournalist on assignment for National Geographic magazine; presenting himself as a Bangladeshi national would have been “suicidal,” he said. Alam claims he convinced the BSF by affecting a British accent, and by dropping the names of any high-ranking British, Indian and Bangladeshi officials that came to mind. “I was trying to make sure the jawans [“soldiers”] felt I wasn’t some Bangladeshi they could beat up and kill, but someone from far away, who had better connections,” he remarked, adding that he was “using the race and class card.” The BSF quickly arranged with the BDRfor his release.

Alam was handed over to a BDR camp that night, and then transported to the Rowmari police station, where he learned that the BDR was filing a case against him for illegal intrusion. Alam claims his entry into India was accidental, and speculates that the lawsuit is an act to save face. According to Alam, the local BDR “had no knowledge of the incident” when they were contacted by BDR headquarters, which was notified by the BSF. “There was huge negligence on the part of the BDR, and I suspect they needed some sort of diversionary tactic,” he said.

On June 17, Alam was released on bail by a Kurigram district court, where local lawyers and journalists rallied to his support. At the time of publication in August, the suit against Alam is still pending.