William A S Ouderland: The Australian freedom fighter of 1971

William first set foot in Dhaka, in 1970, as Production Manager for the Bata Shoe Company. He’d just been promoted to Executive Director for the company when our War for Liberation broke out. Any sensible man, if presented the opportunity, would have taken flight-back to the safety of his country.

But “Bir Protik” William A S Ouderland, the only foreigner to be honored as such for his role in the War for Liberation, chose instead to stay and fight with the people of this country at great risk to his own life. It may seem odd that he chose to fight for a people that he seemingly had no direct connection. However, a closer look at his life reveals a tapestry of personal tragedies that may have informed his decision to take up arms for Bangladesh.    

Life of a spy

Ouderland came from a poor working-class Dutch family of shoe-shiners. Born in Amsterdam during World War I, he was all too familiar with the horrors of war. Prior to Hitler’s invasion of the Netherlands, he had joined the Dutch National Service. Soon after, he become a sergeant in the Royal Signal Corps. He was captured by Nazis and interned in a POW camp. He managed to escape the camp, to become a spy for the Dutch Underground Resistance movement.

“As the events of March 1971 unfolded with the tanks and Pakistani forces rolling into Dhaka, I was re-living the experience of my younger days in Europe,”

He wrote to his friend Anwar Faridi about 2 decades after ‘71.

Role in the liberation war

Fast forward to March 25 1971. As the Pakistani army systematically butchered the sleeping residents of Dhaka in cold blood, in “Operation Searchlight”, Ouderland was in Dhaka as the Executive Director of Bata. He used his special privileges from his position to securely pass through the city during the curfew. He quietly photograph the trail of death and destruction the Pakistani army had left in their wake. Strongly reminded of the atrocities he had seen in his early years in Europe committed by the Nazis, he felt compelled to document the atrocities to the best of his abilities. He then sent the photographic evidence he had compiled to the international media.

At that time, he also had connections from his experience as a spy for Dutch Underground Resistance during World War II. Ouderland established relationships with many high ranking officers within the Pakistani Army including Tikka Khan, Rao Farman Ali. He even became a “distinguished friend” of AAK Niazi – people who were personally involved in orchestrating “Operation Searchlight”. Part of his strategy included tlattering the Pakistanis with high praise and improved his access to the high ranking officials. He then clandestinely forwarded key intelligence from these contacts to Col (retd) M. A. G. Osmani, Commander-in-Chief of the Mukti Bahini, through a den in Zinzira.

Drawing from his experience in World War II as a guerilla commando, he organized and trained members of the Mukti Bahini. He shared techinques in Sector 2 in secret locations in Tongi, including the premises of the Bata Shoe Factory. At one point, he put his own life at risk by becoming actively involved in the missions in Sector 2. He planned and coordinated various missions in and around Dhaka, most notably destroying the Bhairab-Tongi rail line bridge and culvert. According to a document in the possession of Major Haider, Ouderland would regularly supply provisions to Mukti Bahini fighters, hiding weapons in his rooftop water tank and regularly sending shoes, blankets and medicines to them.

He had fully adopted this country as his own, going so far as to fight for it in a war that wasn’t his.

For the safety of his staff and their families, he had many of them move to the Bata Shoe Factory compound. When the Pakistani Army took over the Telephone Industries Corporation adjacent to the factory, he recognized the looming danger from being precariously positioned right next to an army encampment and created two bunkers for his staff on the grounds of the factory.  The bunkers would save the lives of more than 50 people later in December when the Indian air force attacked the Pakistani camps next door. He even went as far as opening his doors to the Mukti Bahini after sending away his wife and their daughter to Australia.

Life after the war

However, his request for citizenship was denied and in 1978 he retired from his role as the Executive Director of the Bata Shoe Company and settled in Australia with his family. To honour his bravery in our Liberation War, he was twice invited to Bangladesh – once in 1992 and again in 1998- to officially accept his “Bir Protik” award. His health, however, prevented him from travelling to Bangladesh to accept the award in person. When the award eventually reached him, he donated the 10,000 BDT endowment to the Bangladesh Freedom Fighters Welfare Trust.

Ouderland passed away in Perth, Western Australia on May 18, 2001, at the age of 83. Many Bangladeshis attended his funeral and sang the national anthem as his coffin was draped with a flag in Bangladesh’s national colors. A library at the Bangladesh High Commission in Australia and a road in front of the Australian High Commission in Dhaka is named in his honour.

He may not have been a Bangladeshi on paper, but he was through and through a Bangladeshi to his very core. We owe you a great debt, sir. 

Everything that’s wrong with Kabir Singh and why you should not enjoy it

Kabir Singh. Sandeep Vanga’s remake of the Telugu cult hit Arjun Reddy; an alcoholic surgeon with an explosive temper who becomes addicted to alcohol and drugs after his girlfriend is forced to marry someone else.

The film was led by Shahid Kapoor as the titular character and Kiara Advani as the object of his passion (?) and the reason behind his violent outburst. It raked in nearly ₹380 crores at the box office and is the second highest-grossing Hindi film of the year. If you haven’t been living under a rock all these months, you probably already knew most of what you read.

What the hullabaloo is about

You might also be familiar with the whirlwind of negative reviews (from many critics and alike) that followed its immediate release and has continued to dominate a lot of the conversation surrounding the film, and with good reason too. Every despicable act of misogyny and toxic masculinity, you name it and Kabir Singh’s probably done it.                                                        

Everything that's wrong with Kabir Singh and why you should not enjoy it
  • Beating people up as a point of pride?Check.                                                                                        
  • Barging into a freshman class to claim a woman as your property? Check.                                           
  • Creepily stalk a woman, because why not? Check.                                                                               
  • Kissing said woman without her consent after the first conversation they have? Check.                                                                         
  • Commanding a “chubby” woman to be friends with the said woman because skinny women can’t be friends? Check.                              
  • Threatening the parents for refusing to marry off their daughter? Check.                                                                                                           
  • Hitting the said woman who now has Stockholm syndrome thanks to your noble efforts? Check.                                    
  • Snorting and drinking on the job, because how else would you react to a breakup? Check.                                                                                      
  • Threatening to rape a woman at knifepoint when she refuses to have sex with him? Check.

Misogyny is front and centre in Bollywood. Stalkers are often glorified, toxic masculinity is normalized and even molestation is justified as a legitimate form of courtship. But why is that especially problematic in the context of a country like Bangladesh?

Normalization of stalking and its ramifications

With movies like Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951), where the hero stalked and teased a woman into his romantic interest’s heart; Darr (1993), where the hero stalks the girl even to her honeymoon; and TereNaam (2003), where a girl falls in love with a violent man who kidnaps her, stalking has been normalized as a natural romantic expression of love. It follows that the woman gives in to the man’s persuasions and somehow they fall in love and live happily ever after.

Everything that's wrong with Kabir Singh and why you should not enjoy it

Real-life encounters with your stalker are hardly ever this pleasant though. Far from it. Since men have been indoctrinated into the belief that women are bound to give in to their charms at one point thanks to these very same movies championing women as submissive beings, a simple “no” is hardly ever an acceptable answer.

This has deadly consequences for women, manifesting in various forms of harassment and violence directed towards them. A large number of acid attack victims are, in fact, women who rebuffed the advances of men who were at one point stalking them. That a country like Bangladesh has the highest reported incidence of acid assault in the world doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination.

What it teaches people about the nature of love, relationships and women’s agency

Kabir Singh, unfortunately, adds to that a trope thanks to the director’s decision to reduce Kiara Advani’s character, Preeti, to a one-dimensional female who is submissive and accepting of Kabir’s advances and is deferential to his dominating and controlling nature. She isn’t a fully realized woman, but rather a plot device in the hero’s story. Preeti has been shown as a woman who, for starters, can’t even make eye contact, and only opens her mouth to plead, beg or call Kabir her ‘baby’. She has no agency of her own. She doesn’t have the right to decide whether she wants to be with Kabir Singh. Preeti never consents to being kissed, but we suppose consent is assumed to be the lack of a firm “no” in the movie (not as though a “no” would have made Kabir pause either).

This reduces the value of their “love” to a certain set of demands as set by Kabir- that must be immediately gratified by Preeti in order for their relationship to hold any stock. A lot of this unchallenged power to make such decisions stems from the fact Kabir is a man. The message it sends to young men in our country, where the gender power dynamics are skewed in the favour of men, is that Kabir’s behaviour is, in fact, justified. It is a glorification of abusive relationships and nothing more.

Misogyny and justifying violence against women

Kabir Singh’s reckless behaviour ultimately leads to him losing Preeti. He goes through alcohol, drugs and countless one-night stands instead of processing the turmoil within like a normal human being. People around him blame Preeti for the sorrow she’s caused him. He was never at fault, they say; he is just a love-struck man with anger issues, we are told; a veritable genius, who only indulges in excessive drinking because she was dumped.

Whoever has heard of making a grown man take responsibility for his own actions? After all, boys will be boys.

The argument used by many to defend Kabir Singh and his actions is that it is merely his way of expressing his passionate love for Preeti, which is why he takes the liberty of hitting her as well. That is essentially the take away for most people: that love means dictating the life of your significant other, and refusal to abide by any order to that end justifies violence. In the words of the director himself, “If you don’t have the liberty of slapping each other, then I don’t see anything there.” Kapoor has defended his character. “There are all kinds of people in real life, including alpha-males who feel territorial entitlement, and I have played this character truthfully,” he told journalists.

Everything that's wrong with Kabir Singh and why you should not enjoy it

But film critic Anna Vetticad has taken issue with justifying such a narrative in the name of depicting reality.

“This is exhausting, but for the zillionth time: it is not the depiction of reality that is objectionable here, it is precisely because violent, destructive misogynists do exist and women for centuries have suffered at their hands that it is deeply troubling when a film portrays such a person as cool, funny, and, as Kapoor puts it, a man with “a good heart” who  “loves purely” and “wears his emotions on his sleeve,”

She wrote in her review of the film.

In a country like Bangladesh where 66% of women have reported being abused by their domestic partners, it further solidifies these beliefs within the very large, mostly male audience that this movie was able to draw to the theatres, most of whom don’t see much wrong with the movie aside from Kabir Singh’s temper.

In conclusion

Kabir Singh is a celebration of everything that’s wrong in our culture. The blatant lack of respect for women and their agency, the tendency to justify and make excuses for the violence carried out by men on women on a daily basis, the glorification of stalking and other aspects of toxic masculinity. Even with the few virtues that it manages to scrape by, the enormity of the potential harms that it may have simply cannot be ignored.

Arundhati Roy should have acted more responsibly. But, so should have we

Cover photo: Manish Swarup/AP Photo

If you happen to follow news outlets on social media, chances are you have already read the headlines about Arundhati Roy’s controversial comments about the Indian and Pakistani armies. Arundhati was heard saying in a 2-minute clip snipped from a lecture she delivered in 2011 that unlike the Indian army “the Pakistani military was never used against its own people”.

Naturally, there was a massive outrage from people in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, followed by a backlash to the outrage. As the controversy unfolds in real-time, it’s worth examining just what happened in the span of the last few days that put Arundhati Roy, a well respected social activist, in hot water with the press and the public.

The controversial speech

Arundhati Roy probably should have acted more responsibly. But so should have we

The 2-minute clip where she apparently made the statement was widely circulated on social media this week. She was heard claiming that since India’s birth, the country had been waging war on its own people and that Pakistan had never deployed its army against its people the way India had.

The repercussions were almost immediate. People wasted no time in pointing out the Pakistani army’s role in massacring over 3 million people in the then East Pakistan in 1971 and the sustained poverty and the plunder of the resource-rich Balochistan province.

She was branded a liar, hypocrite and pseudo-intellectual.

Some said her selective blindness to the bloody genocide through which Bangladesh emerged was appalling and that she was desperately in need of a history lesson. Many in the press tore into her supposed anti-Indian sentiments.

The issue lies with her ill-conceived idea to contrast the severity of the force used by the Indian and Pakistani armies on the people of their own country. In trying to illustrate the severity of the Indian state’s crimes against its own people, she unintentionally reduced the struggles of Bangladeshis who fought hard to obtain their freedom as well denigrated the continued oppression of the Baloch people as they are deprived the riches of their own land.

Read more: Kashmir, a paradise lost?

Unintended though it may have been, to many people who still grieve over the indelible trauma of the past (and for the Baloch, the present), she seemed like an apologist for the Pakistani army.

Roy’s humble apology

Arundhati Roy probably should have acted more responsibly. But so should have we

On Wednesday, Arundhati Roy said people unintentionally “say something thoughtless or stupid” at some point in their lives, adding that what she devoted to words in her writing was far more significant than what she “might say extempore in the course of a freewheeling talk”.

The author said further that her opinion on what Islamabad was doing in Balochistan and the “genocide that the Pakistan Army committed in Bangladesh has never been ambiguous” and were reflected in her writings. To support her claim, she referenced two examples of her literary works, one of them being the novel ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ published in 2017. In it, one of the main characters, an Indian Intelligence Officer, Biplab Dasgupta aka Garson Hobart, who has served in Kashmir, says:

“It is true we did—we do— some terrible things in Kashmir, but… I mean what the Pakistan army did in East Pakistan—now that was a clear case of genocide. Open and shut.

But are we asking the right questions?

Arundhati Roy probably should have acted more responsibly. But so should have we

At the risk of sounding like the devil’s advocate, I would wager that Arundhati Roy never explicitly intended to malign Bangladeshis or the Baloch. Her comments lacked nuance and were disappointing given the standard to which we hold the wordsmith, but with that said and done, I do question whether they deserved such intense scrutiny at the cost of omitting what the rest of her 90-minute lecture was about from the discussion.

Read more: What is happening in Hong Kong? Answers you need to know

The now infamous 2-minute clip of hers that went viral was extracted from a 90-minute lecture from 2011. Arundhati, who was reading out from her essay ‘Democracy’s Failing Light’ at a conference on Democracy and Dissent in China and India at the University of Westminster in the UK, talked about the way the Indian state became a colonizer immediately shaking off the shackles of colonialism itself. She named place after place that the Indian state has waged war on within its boundaries since its inception, from Kashmir and Telangana to Manipur and Mizoram to Goa, embarking on a campaign of suppression to consolidate its rule over the lands.

Anyone who watches the full video will understand that she is trying to make a point here about the bias of the international community in giving Pakistan its fair share of negative coverage for the brutality of its militarism, while simultaneously shying away from depicting India as anything but a bastion of democracy when many of its own people have been reduced to second class citizens.

In this context, her contention that India has ‘perpetually been at war’ with its own people does seem to make sense.

Furthermore, this 2-minute snippet miraculously resurfaced a few days after Arundhati Roy penned a searing opinion piece in the New York Times against PM Narendra Modi’s ambitions in Kashmir and India at large.

Arundhati minced no words saying, “Given my views on what is happening in Kashmir now, it is not surprising that Hindu Nationalists are rushing to generate outrage over this exciting new/old canard they have dug up about my supposed denial of the genocide in Bangladesh and the deeds of the Pakistan Army in Pakistan.”

The Yellow Press

With distrust in the media growing by the day, one must be ever vigilant of the content one comes across online. The yellow press relies on clickbaity headlines which draw us in to confer upon us details of the juiciest sort. The resulting outrage encourages us to share more and more, thus motivating these outlets to concoct headlines that are even more removed from reality.

Even reputable news outlets have their slip-ups, quoting people out of context and sometimes downright misquoting them. Only by admitting when one is mistaken and taking actual steps to correct said mistakes can these outlets regain the trust of their readers.

In this day and age, we must be conscious of both how we consume information and what information we put back out into the world. Let’s not let our outrage get the best of us.

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The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh

My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes
Told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies;
Although I couldn’t feel the pain
I knew I had to try.
Now I’m asking all of you
To help us save some lives
Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh

It’s been 48 years and a day since George Harrison crooned “Bangla Desh” over his guitar at a pair of benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden. Forever memorializing both his friendship with Ravi Shankar and the image of the recording artist as a good global citizen.

The harrowing backgrounds

In November 1970, the Bhola cyclone had ravaged East Pakistan and West Bengal. Killing 500,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Then, as if to conspire with nature, the Pakistani army launched one of the most brutal military slaughters in modern history against the people of the East. Machine-gunning crowds of civilians, destroying whole villages and putting the torch to the dense slums of Dhaka.

An artist’s call of duty

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh

Helplessly staring at the events from afar, Ravi Shankar set about to raise around $25,000.

First through the sale of his album, Joi Bangla, and then through a charity concert of his own. In the depth of his melancholy, he reached out to his friend George Harrison one day in Los Angeles.

“I was in a very sad mood, having read all this news, and I said, ‘George, this is the situation. I know it doesn’t concern you, I know you can’t possibly identify…’ But while I talked to George he was very moved, he felt very deeply, and he said, ‘Yes, I think I’ll be able to do something.’” Harrison himself later reflecting on the momentous occasion said, “The Concert For Bangladesh happened because of my relationship with Ravi … I said, ‘If you want me to be involved, I think I’d better be really involved,’ so I started recruiting all these people.”

As Shankar himself recounted in an interview published in the Rolling Stones magazine in 1971

The project began in earnest during the last week of June 1971, five or six weeks before the event took place on 1st August with Harrison as the principal mover, gathering musicians, making the phone calls, getting the commitments and setting up the show.

Concert for Bangladesh

Around the middle of July, the upcoming concert by “George Harrison and Friends” was announced, via a minuscule ad buried in the back pages of the New York Times.

On Sunday, August 1 1971, Shankar, Harrison and those “friends” – among them Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr and the band, Badfinger – staged rock’s first mass act of philanthropy, for the 400,000-capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden, New York.

Steering clear of the complex geopolitics that was behind the near radio silence of the American media, Harrison chose instead to focus on the human face of the crisis. His audibly distraught voice was an appeal to the basic humanity of the people listening, a call for solidarity that defied the limitations of human compassion.

Red tapes

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 3
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Marty Lederhandler/AP/REX/Shutterstock (6596757a) Harrison Shankar Former Beatle George Harrison, left, is shown at a press conference at the Abkco Industries offices in New York.

Hosting the concert might have had its difficulties. But getting the nearly $243,000 it raised to the people it was intended for was a monster of a task in its own right.

Despite Harrison’s noble intentions, Pattie Boyd, his first wife, reported that Harrison believed that some of it “went walkabout”. “It was uncharted territory, the scale of it,” said Jonathan Clyde, of the Beatles’ Apple group in an interview with The Guardian in 2011. “The money did eventually reach Bangladesh, although perhaps not in time to help the refugees at that point. The big mistake was that Unicef wasn’t chosen beforehand, and so the IRS [the US tax service] took the view that because the charity wasn’t involved in the mounting of the concert, they’d take their cut. This distressed George hugely, it really angered him. There was an ongoing tussle for years, but I’m afraid even now the IRS still take their slice.” 

The legacy

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 4

But the legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh did not end there; rather, it expanded. The concert and subsequent album and film have since raked in millions for Unicef. It went on to fund projects not only in Bangladesh but in trouble spots from Angola to Romania, and even in the Horn of Africa. According to music journalist Mikal Gilmore, Harrison drew heavily from his experience from his entanglement with the IRS. He gave Bob Geldof “meticulous advice” to ensure that Live Aid’s estimated £50 million found its way, as intended, to victims of the Ethiopian famine.

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 5

Even more critical than the money that was raised from the concert, however, was the widespread support it garnered for the fledgeling nation of Bangladesh.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about a nation that had for so long been desperately seeking to break-through the near radio silence of the media.

Equally important, was how the endeavour redefined the role of the artist from one who was bound by a sacred contract with the audience to produce art that was good, to one who was expected to stand against injustice and use one’s voice to proclaim the unspoken truths of the world aloud.

In a year in which the press was rightfully decrying “the motives of the musicians and the level of the audiences, with each neo-Woodstock more avaricious than the last”, the Concert for Bangladesh, -was –to paraphrase the editors of Rolling Stone – through the sheer splendor of its music and the wholesomeness of its motive,proof that the spirit of music was well and alive.