Arif is free, is he?

May 27, 2008
By

Photo: Mohammad Arifur Rahman, Credit:Mustafiz Mamun.

His eyes spoke otherwise, betraying the expressions. Mohammad Arifur Rahman put every effort to show that he was in comfort, yet the eyes divulged he was scared. And he had reasons to be! From a prodigy without any academic training, Arif went to be a National prizewinner cartoonist. Months later he was again in the news for the wrong reasons. This time he was behind the bars for a cartoon claimed to be hurting the religious sentiments of some quarter. Effigies were burnt, the editor of the renowned daily knelt down to the Mullah Chiefs begging for mercy. Arif was disowned by his employer and colleagues, but not by everyone. An international outcry brewed and soon forums started to demand his release, again he was a hero. But justice was not served. After six months of detention, Arif was finally cleared from the charges of profanity and sedition. He was free. This is the first time Arif is facing the media. He was here to tell his side of the story. The story behind the idea of that notorious cartoon and the aftermath- a ride to hell for a 24 years old boy fresh from the village.

Being the only son of a broken family who took refuge to relatives, he was obsessed with painting. It all started with drawing on the mud and sand with sticks before switching to pencils and papers. The shops in the rural area had no brush or paints, so he made them. He painted with natural colors like red, yellow and green made from leaves and fruits. Wrapping swabs or piece of clothes to a stick, he enjoyed the colorful painting. Arif used to wait for the 25th Baisakh, the birthday of Tagore. He saved every penny he could to participate in the three-day fair being held every year in Shahjadpur ‘Rabindra Kuthibari’. He rented stalls to exhibit his drawings framed with cheap woods and plastics. Interestingly he never sold any of his paintings even if people were interested in buying them. The paintings were like his children and he had satisfaction when they were praised.

The twist of fate came with an advertisement in a fun magazine. In 2004 the magazine asked its readers to send cartoons, Arif did so. This was the first time he drew a comic and it was selected. He was on cloud nine. A boy from a village had his cartoon on a National daily! Arif fall for the fame. He started drawing cartoons and sending them to all the funmags he knew. But still there were mouths to feed since the cartoons weren’t earning him money. Arif started working in a grocery shop owned by his cousin in Dhaka.

He was satisfied with the shelter assuring him food and some pocket money. He drew cartoons in the lunch break. In his tiny room, the cartoonist was again on the job till he slept. There was no looking back from then on since they were being published in the famous magazines like ‘Ummad’ and ‘Bicchhu’. Arif sent them to Alpin too, the one of the Daily Prothom-Alo. But the supplement editor had his reservations since Arif was drawing for every other publication. He was advised to draw exclusively for them in order to get them in print. Arif agreed after co-incidently winning the pin-hunt competition prize in two catagories. Recognition followed when he won the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) cartoon contest and another jointly arranged by the Daily Star and Anti Corruption Commission. Famous cartoonist like Rafiq-un-Nabi (Ranabi) and Shishir Bhattacharya praised Arif and were surprised to know that he hadn’t any formal training on drawing. Only a month later recieving the famous prize, he faced the other side of the coin. In one of his cartoons published in Alpin (17th September, 2007 issue), an old man was asking the name of a child with a cat in his lap. The boy answered and was scolded for not putting Mohammad before his name, as he was Muslim. Then the man asked about the animal and the scared boy put the holy prophet’s name before the cat as suggested by the elder. Things turned bad the moment it hit the stands. The furious mullahs were on rampage and Arif was suddenly the enemy of the state! His story really starts from here:

So what was the idea behind the cartoon? Why did you draw it?

Well, i never thought this was going to be such a big issue. The joke I used is a common one in our locality, infact in that zone. I heard it when as a kid and even when I grew up. My idea was to highlight the faulty religious teachings by some of our elders where they advise to put the name of our holy Prophet before every name, when they should also clarify where it shouldn’t be used. What surprised me, I learnt after my release that the same joke was used in a publication of Islami Chatra Shibir name Kishorekantha (November, 1998 Issue).

Did you see it?

Yes, I did.

What happened next?

I draw it on 5th September last year and it was published in Alpin on 17th September. That day a fellow contributer called me and said my cartoon has enraged some people. He couldn’t elaborate and I was worried. I called the supplement editor Sumanta Aslam and he said not to worry but to keep my phone open. I had a restless night. Next morning I told my cousin about what I heard and he said I should go hiding. Then a call came from reporter Tipu Sultan. He said that the CID (Criminal Investigative Department) wants to talk to me and they would like to meet me, I better co-operate.

Where were you then?

At the shop. Then the CID called and asked for my location. I gave it to them. Hours later a police jeep stopped nearby. I was standing outside. An officer came in and asked for me. I said- I’m Arif. He told me to accompany him to the CID office for some questioning. On the wireless he told some superior, ‘we have him sir’. I rode the Jeep and asked him if I was arrested. He said I was being taken to the safe custody. I tried to make a call from my cell phone but he confiscated it. He returned it though after a while. I then sent a text message to Sumanta Vai, but he didn’t respond.

Did the CID interrogate you? Were you harassed or beaten?

No, nothing likes that. The officer who arrested me took me to his superior who promised to reward him, maybe for arresting a criminal like me (laughs). And then I was told to go to the ground floor. There some officers asked me about the idea of the cartoon.

What idea?

They wanted to know who gave me the idea for the cartoon. If it was Matiur Rahman (Editor, Prothom-alo) or Mahfuz Anam (Editor, Daily Star) or anybody else. I said it was my idea. At the same time I begged mercy for others, cause no one else was involved in it. Fortunately, there were other officers who spoke for me. One of them showed a print-out image of mine taking the TIB cartoon competition prize. Another praised me as a promising cartoonist who some day would be famous.

No incident there?

Nothing scary, rather an interesting one. I was ordered to be sent to the Tejgaon Police station. Before leaving, one of the officers took me to his room. He requested to draw a cartoon as a souvenir. I was embarrassed. I told him about my state of mind- with all the tensions surrounding. But he insisted, so I drew one. It was not a cartoon but a sketch, where a young man was sitting with a gloomy face and another talking to him. It was practically the scene of the room. The officer liked it. I had to sign it.

By this time, no one called?

Not while in the CID office. When I started again towards Tejgaon my cousin and an uncle called and said not to worry. They said they would try their best to bail me out. Then came another call from another Prothom-alo reporter. He said the National Security Intelligence (NSI) would call me and I should gently co-operate.

So the CID was a relief?

Yes it was. The people were good there. One, who took me to the police station said that he felt sorry for me cause I was framed- a pawn in the situation. Maybe my rustic outlook made them believe I was innocent. These guys work with the criminals all the time, they can tell.

What happened in the Police Station?

The CID officer escorted me there and handed over to the Officer in Charge. Before leaving he returned just to console me. He said some encouraging words and requested others to take care of me. I was really touched. Then the OC asked the same questions again, why I drew that cartoon. He then said the Government wanted to keep me in safe custody because my life was in danger.

He told me to fill up the necessary forms for the custody. It was near the lockup and then the harassment began. A Sub-inspector started calling me all the names in the book and some constables joined him.

Did they hurt you?

No, they didn’t touch me, but scolded for defaming the religion. At the same time the NSI called. An officer asked me the same questions over and again- who was behind the idea, why I drew it? With people (some police) shouting at me I had to keep my voice as normal as possible and answer them. Then in middle of the conversation the Sub-inspector snatched my phone and put it in his pocket. I was put in the lock-up, had my Iftari (Arif was fasting, it was the Ramazan) with others. Then I was put in a separate cell all alone.

Did you meet the media?

No. I heard they were there in the police station and that’s why I was put in a single cell to show them I was in safe custody, which changed later.

What change?

When I was sent to the Court and then in Jail, I learnt that the OC of Tejgaon filed a case of profanity and sedition against me and I was on trial for that.

An enemy of the state?

You can say that.

One fill in the gap question; the NSI, was they offended in the sudden hamper in your conversation? Did they contact you after that?

I don’t know. It was not my fault though. But they didn’t contact me after that.

What happened in the jail? I mean what was your experience?

Apart from two attacks, it was not all that bad in terms of experience. I was sad though. I had to stay away two Eids from my mom. It was painful.

What attack?

When I was in, they put me in the Amdani ward, which was for the newcomers. There some people attacked me. On the first attack they beat me with bamboo pole and some beat me with bare fists. Then again after a few hours I was attacked. One of them took a stick, put it in the toilet and then brushed it in my mouth. I was fasting then.

No one stopped them! Who were these guys?

Not at the start. But after some while others intervened. They were the JMB (Jamatul Mujahedin Bangladesh).

How could you be so sure that they were JMB?

I asked others and later I talked to some of them. Everyone knows that they are the JMB.

You talked to them!

See, I was always followed by them. They constantly kept me on watch. Some of them tried to be friendly too. They offered me to join them. And I said I would (laughs).

You would!

Well, just to get rid of them I had to tell something.

Only two attacks and then nothing?

Well after the attacks, I was switched to Manihar ward; there they came again after me. Then I was put in the ‘Choy Cell’ (a six room cell). There I had Arafat Rahman Koko (son of ex-premier Khaleda Zia), Professor Anwar Hossain, Abdul Awal Mintoo as cellmates. Because of the security reasons, I missed the Eid Ul Fitr Jamat, which I had in my room. Then in the Eid ul Azha, I attended the Jamat with others.

So many VIP’s. Any incident there?

Nothing you can call incident. All of them were good to me. Arafat Bhai used to recite the Hadith and advised me not to draw cartoons anymore since they are haram for Muslims. Anwar Sir used to take good care of me, he even gave me pen and paper to draw whatever I like. Abdul Awal sir gave me a radio to listen to the news. All of them were good. Later I was sent to the ‘Nobbui Cell’ (ninety room cell). I was there till my release.

Did you have any visitor? How did you know about your legal proceedings?

Barrister Sara Hossain came to visit me on the eve of Eid Ul Fitr. She told me not to worry. I didn’t have any visitor till the last days of my sentence. They used to take me to the Court; it was like going and coming from there. I had no chance to talk to anybody, not even my legal advisors.

Then how things turned?

After the resignation of Barrister Mainul Hosein from the Caretaker Government, things changed abruptly. I was sent a mercy petition application from the Prothom-Alo which I signed and then suddenly my case moved real fast. And at last I was pardoned for all my offences or dismissed from all the charges against me.

So you mean to say Barrister Mainul Hosein was behind this?

No, I didn’t mean that. All I said was the timeframe from when my case paced. It can be a co-incidence, but I don’t blame or accuse anybody. See even Sumanta Bhai is working in the Ittefaq (owned by Mainul Hosein) now. I went there to meet him. He wished me luck.

So what’s the situation now? You draw cartoons?

Of course I do. I practice because I want to keep it up. But I don’t send them anywhere. No one will publish them I think. But someday they will, I want to show them all that what you did was wrong to me. But still I feel sorry if I hurt anyone’s feelings. My aim is to be famous someday, so that all the people of Bangladesh can take pride in me.

Are you safe? Do you feel the JMB are done with you?

That’s the thing still haunt me even in my dreams. I usually keep a low profile; never in anywhere have I introduced myself as Arif. But still I don’t feel safe; they can be anywhere and even kill me if they want. I don’t even work in the shop where I used to.

If I publish this interview, do you think there will be problem for you from any quarter?

I don’t think so. The government did not put an embargo on my words; they didn’t say that I couldn’t talk to anyone. It’s just that nobody before you wanted to know what happened. I want people to know that I didn’t mean to harm anybody or their feelings. Maybe someday I can compensate them and my country by doing something great. All I’m afraid is of the JMB guys, I don’t know what they will do. When I was in Jail, one of them said he who will kill me will be guaranteed heaven. They can do anything for a place in heaven.


So, that was the mystery of the scared eyes. Our conversation ended there. Arif was jobless, but not entirely. The Election Commission called Arif and he was illustrating the publications for the forthcoming election. The money would be good he was promised. Good for Arif, who is waiting for the sunshine.

NB: Bangla Version.

Tags:

28 Responses to Arif is free, is he?

  1. Tarif Ezaz
    May 27, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Thanks for this great post!

  2. kingkong
    May 27, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    At last some news of the poor fellow … good to hear that the EC involved him … thanks pial vai for the post …

  3. রাশেদ
    May 27, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Thanks Pial Bhai for sharing.

  4. May 27, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Thank you for the piece. We knew about the very public side of Arif’s story but this is probably the side we all were waiting to know.

  5. Robin
    May 27, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Dear Pial
    Many thanks for this. I am very glad to know that Arif is free and still retains his fighting spirit. He is a very brave man and a hero to us all.

  6. May 28, 2008 at 3:58 am

    thanks so much to pial for bringing us this interview. all since the shocking days last september our thoughts have very frequently returned to arif and his well being. it is the very sad side of humanity that condemnation and outcry for revenge often comes before forgiveness and tolerance. i just hope that arif will never give up his passion for drawing cartoons, it is his way to portray situations know to us all and share them in a way we can smile at. thanks arif, for staying strong and being yourself.

  7. NiRBashito
    May 28, 2008 at 4:11 am

    Thank you, Omi, for this rare insight into Arif’s life behind the bars! We wish he can get past his trauma — I must laud him for keeping his spirits so high in spite of all that he has gone through. Of course, that the court let him go proves he’d never done anything wrong to begin with. Let’s hope the EC pays him fairly for his labor, and I’m sure his career will take off once again. As for that ugly faced barrister, well… let’s not waste our time and energy on that national embarrassment.

  8. May 28, 2008 at 11:04 am

    thanks.
    its a great work.

  9. joynal abedin
    May 28, 2008 at 11:45 am

    The writer is promising.He should be encouraged to write since he has flair for writing.

  10. May 28, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    A big thanks to the interviewer for this piece.

    “Arafat Bhai (koko) used to recite the Hadith and advised me not to draw cartoons anymore since they are haram for Muslims.”

    hahaha. could not resist myself from laughing out loud. This is aptly called – VUTER MUKHE RAM NAAM !

  11. Asif
    May 28, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Thanks to E-BD and Pial for bringing out this interview. Very heartened to read this interview.

  12. May 29, 2008 at 12:16 am

    Amnesty International Report 2008 has reported the nightmare experienced by the enthusiast cartoonist. But I must condemn the role of the press and journalists in protesting the arbitrary detention, torture and harassment which befell Arifur Rahman. Let me quote of the latest Amnesty Report:

    “Freedom of expression
    Although wide-ranging emergency restrictions on the news media were not strictly enforced, their continued existence intensified self-censorship by journalists and editors. Journalists were threatened with arrest if they criticized intelligence agencies or the army.
    • Arifur Rahman, a cartoonist, was arrested on 17 September over a cartoon that used the name of the prophet Muhammad, following threats by Islamist groups. He was charged with “hurting religious sentiments” and was a prisoner of conscience. A 30-day detention order was issued against him under the SPA and extended for a further three months.”

  13. zahid rashid
    May 29, 2008 at 2:27 am

    It is unfortunate how a lot of bloggers were trying to blame the caretaker govt about Arif’s misfortune. I think the govt actually saved his life. Fundamentalists have no sense of right or wrong and don’t understand how they actually defame their religion. It is good that Arif is doing better now and hopefully he will be back to the drawing board very soon.

  14. Mostaque Ahmed
    May 29, 2008 at 10:00 am

    Another good job, Pial!
    Keep it up!!

  15. Shoaib
    May 30, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Wow..this is a great piece of journalism! I hope Asif can steadily get back on his two feet…Thanks for taking time for this. It’s really refreshing.

  16. abdul
    June 5, 2008 at 9:23 am

    an obsession for religion in the twentyfirst century is sad.. this is the main reason why a large number of muslims are lagging behind in all aspects while the world is moving fast…

  17. Uday Roy
    October 21, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    I was waiting to hear this news for a long time that Arif is within us. I do believe that one day Arif would be a world famous Cartoonist and the Bangladesh would be very proud of him !

  18. December 16, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    when i first saw the cartoon i knew that it was not meant against ISLAM.

  19. February 4, 2009 at 9:55 am

    I somewhere agree and disagree here with Mr.Arif

    he gave an example about
    “What surprised me, I learnt after my release that the same joke was used in a publication of Islami Chatra Shibir name Kishorekantha (November, 1998 Issue).”

    I disagree on it —–Jamat e Islami or Chatra Shibir is not the example and I think Jamat e Islami is a Fake religious party They are not the real one for Islam.

    Yes I agree that this type of joke is being used among the people who r not practicing Islam or who have the little literacy in Islam but we should have not practiced it or published it in a very popular News paper .I agree that it was a mistake because it hurts a religious part .

    But I would like to strongly say Many people has a bad intention to insult Islam which should be forsaken

    For an example if the joke is like that what will happen

    Teacher said to his student

    Teacher : What is your Fathers name?
    Student: Sharma De
    Teacher : What shame ! I told you lots of time that use “Sri “before every name

    After a week
    Teacher : What is cooked today in your home by your mom
    Student: Sri .Kodu

    What will happen …..I think it will hurt our Hindu religious minority
    And I think not only Islam but also all religious people should respectable .Joke is for make the people Happy but not the people hurt .Thank you to All —Shamsul Arafin

  20. February 4, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Joke is Make the people Happy not the people Hurt. We always respect all religious person but should not for insulting

  21. ava
    April 10, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Hmm,,he has never ment to insult anyone`s beliefs,if you people just think deeper about it,u`ll realize that too.he`s a real muslim just like all of us,and he always respects muslims` beliefs about islam.hope that someday all of us can realize this….

  22. tomal
    May 28, 2012 at 12:42 am

    feeling sorry for him. “He who will kill him will guaranteed heaven’!!! how funny… JMB was looking for heaven by killing people. is this Islam? Is this the meaning of Islam?
    SO SORRY Arif- we were not there in your hours off need…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *