Refugees in the Public Imagination: The Conference that brought out Gripping Tales of (Dis)location and (Dis)placement | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 24, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:19 AM, February 24, 2018

Refugees in the Public Imagination: The Conference that brought out Gripping Tales of (Dis)location and (Dis)placement

Refugee, migration and relocation have played prominent roles in literature and public spheres alike. In recent times for Bangladesh, it has been even more significant because of the influx of the Rohingyas from Myanmar and the alleged questions of “ethnic cleansing” in countries across border.  The crises transpired at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh in shape of a two-day international conference, “Refugees in the Public Imagination: Discourse of (Dis)location and (Dis)placement.”

Friday, 22 December 2017

The first day of the conference was inaugurated by the Honorable Chairman of the University Grants Comission, Professor Abdul Mannan who congratulated ULAB for hosting a conscientious and comprehensive panels and papers on a pressing and timely issue. The welcome address was conducted by Dr. Jahirul Haque, the Honorable Vice-Chancellor of ULAB, while Dr. Shamsad Mortuza, the Head of the Department of English & Humanities at ULAB, expressed a vote of thanks.

The first session of the day commenced with Dr. Anjali Gera Roy, Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. In her keynote speech titled “Migration, Mobility, Immobility,” Prof. Roy revisited the Komagata Maru episode of 1914, focusing on the ordeals of Gurjit Singh, and the continuities between “imperial and neo-imperial machineries of surveillance, control and containment that regulate, obstruct and redirect movements within and outside the borders of states.” The talk surely set the tone of the conference with its lens on an ideal borderless world being manipulated and then distorted in accordance with neo-imperialistic intentions, be it within or across the border. It also drew in other interrelated issues on race.

Dr. Gera Roy's speech was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Professor Imran Rahman, Special Advisor to the Board of Trustees at ULAB, who spoke at length with representatives from UNHCR and Save the Children working with the Rohingya community on-site in Cox's Bazaar. The discussion threw light on the real-life problems encountered by the volunteering organizations and the government of Bangladesh along with the local people and the Rohingya refugees themselves. One immediate problem that the panelists talked about dealt with the disheveled living quarters and poor sanitation in the Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar.

Next panel discussion “Partition Matters” was an open and crucial one led by Dr. Debjani Sengupta, Dr. Niaz Zaman and Dr. Fakrul Alam. The discussion brought out how the very term, “Partition” has been politically defined, redefined and verily problematized through the years both in literature and in practical life, making it too volatile an issue to be fully realized within an hour long session. Yet, the prominent speakers were no less than successful in addressing the living realities of the identity-less, ranging from the pre-Partition turmoil to the contemporary migration policies incorporated by the US.

After lunch there were parallel sessions of presenters on physical and psychological aspects of refugees in literature and social scenarios, migration, diasporic conflicts, identity crisis, trauma and the role of technology in communicating these issues. The session on Migration and Diaspora chaired by the venerable Professor Dr. Fakrul Alam saw interesting renditions of migration and cross-cultural topics. Dr. Shuhail Islam's “Transnational Diaspora: An Autoethnographic Perspective on Postcolonial Diaspora literature,” made a close examination of diasporic experience where the immigrants struggle to maintain their identity and yet adapt to new ones. Prof. Golam Sarwar Chowdhury spoke on diasporic issues in the novels of Jhumpa Lahiri and Zia Haider Rahman. A central element in his paper was the “tension arising out of emigrating to a new country but not able to black out the past.” The third presenter, Mr. Sajedul Huq looked at the negative perceptions attached with refugees and asylum seekers and examined some notable graphic novels.

In another session on Rootless and Displaced, the presenters tried to locate the critical position that is assigned to refugees. Dr. Sohana Manzoor focused on the historical famine of the fifties and its presentation in the short stories of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. Mr. Avisek Mookherjee in “The Public (Imagi)-Nation and the Migrant 'Other'” made an attempt to present the horrific practice of border killings that rises out of sheer fear of “foreign takeover.” Ms. Sidratul Muntaha's paper “Tree without Roots: Spatial Occupation of a Refugee or Existential Crisis?” presented the acute crisis of refugees in literature using the figure of Majid and Homi Bhaba's theory of hybridization.

At 3:00 in the afternoon the panel on “Women and Migration” took a new turn with Dr. Anjali Gera Roy in conversation with Dr. Perween Hasan, Dr. Firdous Azim and Dr. Razia Sultana Khan. The focus, obviously, was on the problems encountered by women as refugees who as in any critical situation, have to bear the heaviest burden. The continued double subjugation of women both by native and non-native forces is an issue so profound that neither can be denied, nor belittled in any way, agreed the presenters.

The last session of the first day of the Conference was a panel discussion titled, “Refugees Then and Now: From '71 to '17” presented by the eminent scholar Dr. Syed Manzoorul Islam with Prof. Afsan Chowdhury. The session started off with the obvious reference to the afflicted and hunted people from the newly independent Bangladesh in 1971 to the neighboring India, and turned into a lively, yet crucial conversation on racial-cultural hybridity, politics and identity for the people of Bangladesh and the neighboring countries, specifically, Myanmar.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The second and final day of the two day International conference began with Dr. Debjani Sengupta presenting her keynote paper titled, “An Enclave's Marginal Lives: Selina Hossain's Bhumi O Kusum.” An Associate Professor at the Department of English at Indraprastha College for Women, Dr. Sengupta drew attention to the problem of border enclaves known as chhitmahal, the “parcel of territories belonging to Bangladesh but surrounded by the territories of India or vice versa.” The paper threw light on a crucial issue—the lives of the people in those enclaves and how their very identities are like question marks in South Asian geographical and cultural map.    

Starting from 11:00- 1:00 were parallel sessions where academic papers were presented by scholars from home and abroad. In the session Poetic Expressions, Dr. Khan Tauseef Osman's paper on Hemanga Biswas' 'Shunye Dilam Ura,'” registered a deep sense of nostalgia by invoking a mythic past. Sonia Sharmin saw Rushdie's Midnight Children as an exploration of the past that leaves its mark even in the consciousness of the present. Rukhsana R. Chowdhury's “Migrant Voices: An Inquisition of the 'Other' Literature in Bangladesh” brings out the not so much explored aspects of Urdu poetry in Bangladesh and how it projects a literature of the displaced.

In the session Media, Memory and Migration, Ashik Mahmud's paper “Human-Computer Interaction, Refugee Crisis and Cultural Studies,” drew in the complex relationship between the refugees and the cultural problems they pose while Qazi Arka Rahman's “Draw Us Stateless” was a presentation of Rohingyas on media.

In the conference there was one panel that consisted of the reading and interpretation of Amitav Ghosh's work only and saw interesting assessment of his novels in the presentations of Ms. Aliya Shahnoor Ameen, Pranab Kanti Deb and Jaya Yadav. At least two of these papers drew on environmental problems as signs of displacement. Yadav's paper dived into the past to the days of the Opium Wars and linked them with the cultural issues and ethnic cleansing of the modern world.

The presenters in Visual Images and Media brought in fresh perspectives for the audience who thoroughly enjoyed the papers focusing on various images and the roles played by the media. The first paper by Dr. Avishek Ray featured the importance of visual images in today's world and how a digital image can influence people across the world. Dr. Mahruba Tasneem's paper was a show-stopper and she focused on the street art and urban refugees. Trying to understand the possible implications that the recent street art phenomenon of “Shubodh” has introduced in Dhaka, she captured the core crisis urban citizens have to experience almost every day, one that is of both uncertainty and hope. The last paper of this panel by Towhidul Islam Khan drew in the cultural consequences of crossing borders when people exchange various cultural characteristics and yet remain geographically and psychologically rooted to the same place.

The other papers from the afternoon sessions varied from Harry Potter's Voldemort to refugee figures who learnt to lord over the native characters, from the lessons learnt from the refugees to their language and identity. A huge part of these studies invariably focused on the Rohingya community whose arrival in Bangladesh may have drawn the attention of the international community only very recently, but have been integrating with our culture for many years now.

The plenary session of the second day of the conference was conducted by the renowned scholar and political analyst, Dr. Salimullah Khan, Professor of the Department of General Education at ULAB. His session, titled, “One and Only Figure of the Refugee,” incorporated the works of Giorgio Agamben, Frantz Fanon,  and political theorist Hannah Arendt. Dr. Khan reflected on colonialism and imperialism still being very much the rule and not the exception. “It is important to first define what it means to be a human in order to protect their rights,” he said. He proceeded to show that the colonial world was always the “state of exception,” and the figure of the pariah, the outsider always mingled with that of a refugee.

Following Dr. Khan's speech, an academic session, “Refugee Narratives,” was hosted by Dr. Zia Rahman, Mashrur Shahid Hossain, Oliur Rahman, and Samirah Tabassum. The academic conference concluded with an in-depth and comprehensive panel discussion on the Rohingyas who are often called “Bangladeshi Kala” in a derogatory manner.

The program was wrapped up by Dr. Kaiser Haq, Dean of Humanities at ULAB, giving the closing speech where he ardently expressed hope that concerns over the current situation with Rohingyas may be widely covered by the media so that the policy makers step in to alleviate the situation. The two-day conference eventually came to an end and the organizers and participants stepped out of the auditorium asking themselves whether a sustainable solution for refugees and immigrants would ever emerge.

The Refugee Conference at ULAB is covered by The Daily Star Literature Team.

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