Photo: Mohammad Arifur Rahman, Credit:Mustafiz Mamun.
May 27, 2008

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.
Interview was published in EBangladesh  in May 27, 2008
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Arifur Rahman

Arifur Rahman

Cartoonist, Animator, Illustrator, Online Activist, and Publisher of Toons Mag.