“Didn’t have the option to be scared”

Jailed Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Kajol's son on his disappearance and arrest

17 November, 1999 | “My first birthday at my maternal grandparent’s house in Purbo Kafrul in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in my mother's lap wearing a crown.” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK
17 November, 1999 | “My first birthday at my maternal grandparent’s house in Purbo Kafrul in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in my mother's lap wearing a crown.” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK
25 July, 2020

On 10 March 2020, Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a Dhaka-based photojournalist and the editor of The Daily Pokkhokal, a daily newspaper, went missing after he left his office in the evening. Fifty three days later, he was found near the Bangladesh-India border in Jessore district, bound and blindfolded, laying on a field.

The night before Kajol’s disappearance, Saifuzzaman Shikhor, a member of parliament from the ruling Bangladesh Awami League had filed a case against the photojournalist and 31 others, under Bangladesh’s draconian Digital Security Act, or DSA. On 2 March, Manab Zamin, a Bangla daily, had published a story on Shamima Nur Papia, a now-expelled leader of the Jubo Mohila League, the women’s youth division of the Awami League. Papia had been arrested in connection with a sex-trade racket. Manab Zamin’s report noted that during her interrogation, Papia told the police the names of politicians, government ministers, bureaucrats and businessmen who were her clients. The report did not specifically name any of the individuals. Shikhor accused the Manab Zamin editor and the concerned reporter of publishing “false, fabricated and defamatory” news and others of circulating this news on social media. Kajol was among those who had shared Manab Zamin’s report on Facebook.

Since the DSA’s enactment in 2018, human-rights groups have criticised the stringent act for stifling free speech and silencing dissent. As Amnesty International noted, the act gives the government’s Digital Security Agency the power to initiate investigations into anyone whose activities are deemed harmful or a threat. It gives the police the power to arrest anyone, without a warrant, simply on suspicion that a crime may be committed using digital media. In the last six months, over 100 people have been arrested under the DSA. Following his appearance at the Bangladesh border on 3 May, Kajol was detained in jail. On 23 June, Kajol was arrested in connection with the Manab Zamin case and denied bail. He is currently in custody at the Dhaka Central Jail in Keraniganj. At the time of publishing, it had been over 120 days since Kajol first disappeared.

After his disappearance, Monorom Polok, Kajol’s 21-year-old son, started an online campaign called “Where is Kajol?” to raise awareness about his father’s case and subsequent arrest. As part of the campaign, Polok created photo projects that he shared on social media. In one called “Where is my father?” he digitally altered photos from old family albums. He erased Kajol from the photos to show audiences what his father’s disappearance has meant to their family. On 12 July, Utkarsh, a photo-intern at The Caravan, spoke to Polok about his photo campaign, the case against Kajol, and toll it has taken on the family.


2006 | “My father went to cover a working women’s convention in Hong Kong. The details are blurred, only my father will remember the name of the event. I was around seven years old at that time.” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK

Utkarsh: When did you and your family realise that your father was missing and how?

Monorom Polok: I came home a bit late that night, [on 10 March] before 11 pm. My mother opened the door asking the question, “Where is Kajol?” I immediately got a bit shocked. I asked her “Why? Didn’t he come home yet? Did you try calling him?” She said, “Yes, but the calls won’t connect.” I tried again on his two separate phones, two different numbers, and found both of them switched off. My mother and I found it odd because my father is on his phone all the time. These were two separate cell phones, so it shouldn’t be that they ran out of charge. It seemed fishy. He usually comes home around 7 pm or maybe if late, 9 pm. The whole night we spent waiting, thinking that it’s just going to be any moment. We started to get a bit worried, because he is a people’s person so usually wherever he goes, someone at least knows where he is. We called his friends or people who might know, and no one could say anything. We only knew that he left home in the afternoon. He did pick up my younger sister from school, had lunch with her and left normally in the afternoon.

U: What was the course of action you took after that?

MP: My mother hadn’t gone to sleep at all that whole night. She woke me up, and informed me that Father hasn’t returned home. So, we immediately decided that something is wrong. The first thing we did, we issued a general diary report, which is the first report for a missing person, at the local Chawkbazar Police Station, on 11 March.  After filing the general diary, I saw that they are not going to immediately look for him. The word got out, a lot of people know him, we started getting hundreds of calls. I immediately went to his office to look for him, and then got to know that he did go to his office probably right after leaving our home. So directly from our home to his office and then he left in the evening. I couldn’t find anything else, like where he would go after leaving office. It all seemed really fishy. Sources at his office confirmed that there was someone coming to the office and my father was waiting for them.

After waiting for a long time, my father went outside his office, he was sitting on his motorcycle parked outside. He waited for some more time and then went off with his motorcycle. And that was when he was last seen until 3 May.

After the general diary, the reporters collected a copy and finally reported on it. Until the lockdown [in Dhaka], I went to the police station everyday hoping for any progress of the investigation, never seeing anything. On the night on 11 March, we got to know that there was a case filed against my father and 31 others. The two main accused were from the popular newspaper Manab Zamin—the editor and a reporter from that newspaper—and 30 others who had shared a social media post of that [newspaper’s] report. My father was the third accused for sharing the report’s link on his Facebook.

Circa 1989 | “Our ancestral district in Meherpur, Bangladesh, where my father spent much of his early life. Here, he is among his school buddies. When I see him again, I will ask him what they were doing then, what cool subjects they would discuss. There is so much of my father I am yet to find out.” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK

U:  Your father was booked under the Digital Security Act for sharing the Manab Zamin article. Had your father written about the case in his newspaper or just posted about it on social media?

MP: I can’t say specifically if he wrote about this in his newspaper, but he was active about it in social media. He would write and share news. He would always share news links, not just from his own newspaper but from any newspapers that he would see. Not just about this particular case but he was active on social media. But the case against him was just sharing a news report from Manab Zamin. They posted the link, and he just shared it.

U: Did your father mention any names from the ruling party when he shared this article on his Facebook?

MP: No, he didn’t. He just shared it. As their report didn’t have names, my father also didn’t post any names.

U: It was only on the night of 11 March that you got to know that a case was registered against your father under the DSA. In the days leading to his disappearance, did he express any anxiety related to the work that he was doing?

MP: No, no. I don’t think he knew anything about the case [against him]. Because he disappeared on 10 March, and the case was filed on 9 March, at 11.30 pm, almost close to midnight. So, it got to mainstream media around the time my father disappeared. We never got any legal notice about the case ever. It was never like the court sent us any documents or anything. Everything we got to know was through the news. At the end of March or the beginning of April, I got to know that there was another DSA case [against Kajol]. This case was filed on 10 March, the day my father went missing.

U: After your father disappeared, which other law enforcement agencies did you approach besides the Chawkbazar police station?

MP: I went to three divisions of RAB [Rapid Action Battalion] and two detective branches.

In about one or two days I started asking our police station, where the general diary was filed, about tracking his motorcycle and his phones. They said that they do need to look at the call records but it took them forever. It doesn’t take too long, but in my father’s case they couldn’t find his call records for a really long time, almost for a month and a half after he was missing. No progress would ever be made. The police never did anything. Around 18 March, Amnesty International released a CCTV footage of my father’s motorcycle, moments before he was last seen. In the footage, around 5–6 people [are seen], sometimes they came together and sometimes they came separately. Three of them are directly seen hampering with my father’s motorcycle in a really suspicious manner. To me, it seemed like they were putting some tracking, or GPS device on his motorcycle. They were really calm, they didn’t look worried, they were well prepared. They came just after my father parked the motorcycle and went to his office, a few minutes after that, and they went away just before my father came down from his office.

The CCTV footage was released and the police, they had the CCTV before Amnesty. So after that, I went to them again. You can clearly see that [people] were hampering with the motorcycle. But in the report that the police filed for the case, they told me that they did not find suspicious-looking people or activities in the CCTV footage.

U: What transpired between this time and when he was finally found on 3 May?

MP: I went to the law-enforcement agencies. I also joined in protests for my father. These were sometimes organised by family members, sometimes by friends. One was at my university, others were in front of the National Press Club and by journalists and photographers. Ten or twelve days after my father went missing, for about two weeks the nation went into lockdown due to the coronavirus. I also had to stay home. That was one of the most difficult few days because I could clearly see that the law enforcement wasn’t properly looking for my father. I couldn’t see them taking any extra steps, trying to actually look for him. There was absolutely nothing ever happening. They never tried to look for my father’s motorcycle. Never tried to get his call records. They didn’t go to his office. They didn’t ask for investigation. They were absolutely in no hurry. There was absolutely no progress. They would say that, “We are looking into it.” That’s all they would say. “We are working on it.”

My father was found on 3 May. At about 2:48 am, my mother received a call from an unknown number. As it was the middle of the night, she came [to me], and we put the phone on speaker. A duty officer asked me where and who my father is and what my name is. After hearing that my father went missing, he kept asking me if I took any legal action. When I told him that we filed a general diary of the case for him going missing, he finally said, “Speak to him.” That’s when I first got to hear my father’s voice after 53 days. He was found in Benapole, in Jessore district, near the Bangladesh-India border.

U: Could you speak more about the phone call. What did you say to each other?

MP: His voice was breaking down and it sounded like his emotions were bottled up for a really long time. What he said was in Bangla. He was saying that he was alive and he was glad that he got to get out alive. And he asked us to get him at dawn. “Take the first bus at dawn and get here.” He obviously didn’t know that the country was in lockdown, so public transport and everything was still not functioning. We didn’t get to speak too much other than that, and the duty officer took the phone and I informed the police that he was indeed my father.

U: When did you leave for Benapole then?

MP: Immediately, about one or two hours after that, I somehow managed a car and went before sunrise. But it’s a really long journey, it takes about eight hours. On the way I got to know that the Border Guard Bangladesh found my father and handed him over to the Benapole police station. The BGB had decided that they are going to file a case against my father for illegal trespassing. I got to Jessore city and he was taken from Benapole police station to Jessore City and that’s where I was waiting and I finally got to see him. He was handcuffed, behind his back, like a criminal. And we were waiting in the court. The hearing was for the illegal-trespassing case. We asked for bail. It took a really long time, by the end of the day, we did get bail and the order to free him had come. So, our lawyer ran to get the bail documents and suddenly my father was brought out from the court cell. Seeing that they are taking him out, I asked them, “When will you free him?” No one told me anything, just one police officer, looking the other way, said “no” to me. Then he was put in a prison van along with other prisoners and taken away.

Circa 2002 | “My most favourite thing was riding on my father's shoulder. I was around three or four years old. I remember these photographs were taken in our home in Uttar Kafrul, Dhaka. I wonder what we were looking at or were we just posing for the photographs?” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK

U: Were you able to speak to him during this time?

MP: Yeah, but really briefly as he was put in the court cell immediately. We didn’t get to speak about anything. He was glad to see me. He was eager to come home. I told him that we are waiting for him and he is going to get out really soon and get home.

U: What were the conditions in which your father was found on 3 May?

MP: According to a news report in the New Age [newspaper], the BGB team found my father during a patrol in the night, with his eyes tied and arms and legs bound, near the Indian border, 60 metres inside Bangladesh. He was tied up and was laying on a field.

U: When you saw him after 53 days, did he look physically fine?

MP: No, he seemed really weak and really emotionally unstable. He was not in a normal condition. He was in need of medical help. He wasn’t able to stand up properly, he was breaking down in every sentence. And when they brought him from the Benapole police station, I saw that all the police officers and everyone else were wearing masks and gloves. They had taken all the precautions for Corona, but my father, they didn’t give him mask or anything. He was completely exposed, all the time and all the way.

U: Could you briefly summarise the legal proceedings following his detention on 3 May?

MP: After they took him to prison, I couldn’t understand what was happening. Then we got to know that after taking my father from there, another police station in Jessore city decided to file another case against my father under Section 54 [of the Code of Criminal Procedure]. Section 54 allows detention under suspicion without a warrant. The maximum legal limit for detention under this is 15 days, and it is also a bailable offence, like the illegal-trespassing one. The police again presented my father in front of a magistrate and he ordered my father to be put in jail till the investigation is over. And he asked for a report regarding the Section 54 case. It was probably because of the DSA cases against my father. It was just used as a tool.

Our lawyers in Jessore asked for bail and got a hearing on 18 May. It was the fifteenth day of my father’s detention under Section 54. On that day, this is a bailable case, the bail was denied. The magistrate gave the reason that he had asked the police for a report on that case and the last date for the report was on 17 May, but they didn’t still submit it and he cannot let my father go without a report.

The next day, my lawyers asked for the bail again. The bail application was denied, no hearing was given and my lawyer was told verbally that bail will not be given under Section 54. My father would only be shown arrested in the DSA cases and then the Section 54 case would be dismissed, there wouldn’t be any need for it. So basically, my father will be kept in jail. Finally, on 20 May, the Section 54 case was dismissed after the police team submitted the report and confirmed the details about the DSA cases. The police said that they had orders to arrest my father in those cases. Then he was kept in Jessore. As he was still in Jessore, and the DSA cases were in Dhaka, our lawyers in Dhaka asked for bail in the DSA cases and all applications were denied. The reason, which was the same for all of them, was that my father wasn’t shown arrested in those cases, so we can’t ask for bail.  

U: So at this point of time, was your father arrested?

MP: He was just in jail. But not arrested. Not properly shown arrested in a proper case. Section 54 is not a proper case. [Then] there was movement in the first case with the 32 accused [relating to the Manab Zamin article]. The police in Dhaka filed an application with the court, asking to arrest my father in that case. It took 52 days of my father’s detention in jail in Jessore. After 52 days, he was brought to Keraniganj jail and there was a virtual hearing for the 32-member case and then he was finally shown arrested in it. It was on 23 June that my father was arrested for the first time in the DSA case after 52 days of being in jail, and not being arrested. The lawyers also asked for bail, as he was shown arrested, and they were denied. 

U:  Do you know the conditions of his detention? Do you have visitation rights?

MP: No, visitation is not allowed due to the pandemic. He got to make us one call and his voice was breaking down and he was scared that the police will torture him. Our lawyers also called us, and asked us to go to Keraniganj [jail] and meet him, because they had said that my father had emotionally broken down. So, my mother, my younger sister Poushi and I, we did go to Keraniganj jail immediately, the next day. But we weren’t allowed. We also took home food, but we were also not allowed to give him.

2006 | “My father in Hong Kong among representatives of working women. Here he is with Shirin Akhter, previously the president of Karmojibi Nari, a non-profit dedicated to the equality and dignity of women workers. Akhter later become a member of parliament.” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK

U: In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, are norms of social-distancing and isolation being observed in the prison and courts?

MP: They were not being observed at all, when he was brought to court. While in Jessore, he was put in the medical ward. I think he was sick—that’s what we were told. Now he’s not in the medical ward. Also, the Keraniganj jail has been infected with COVID-19, nearly two or three months back. The jails are overcrowded. The concern of him catching oronavirus really worries us. He has pre-existing health conditions which put him in the vulnerable group for COVID. If he dies from corona, who will take the responsibility?

U: Is he being detained with other prisoners?

MP: I really don’t know, because we don’t get to speak to him.

U: How many times have you spoken to your father since his disappearance and subsequent arrest? Can you describe your conversations?

MP: While in Jessore, every seven days he would get five minutes to call us. Even the last time, he asked, “Is there any hope for me to get out before Eid?” Because when he was arrested, he believed that he would get to spend the Ramzan and Eid with us, after being apart for so long. And now that didn’t happen. He was in jail during Ramzan and now again, Eid is coming up and he is hoping that he would get to spend Eid with us. Mostly with family, these are the topics of discussion and then I try to update him on where the case stands.

U: What has been the general outlook towards your father’s case in Bangladeshi media and society?

MP: The general people have been supportive and demanded my father’s freedom. When he had disappeared, they had asked that my father should be found and later on they asked that my father should be freed and the cases against him should be dropped. There were lot of human chains and protests and discussions. Everyone is still standing for help. But nothing seems to work. The journalist community in their entirety are in support of my father. They believe that he is detained wrongly and that he is a prisoner of conscience, not of crime. The DSA law itself is heavily criticised.

U:  Has the government justified his arrest?

MP: No. The government never officially addressed my father’s case, ever. 

U: Why do you think that your father had been singled out among others and “disappeared”?

MP: Honestly, I don’t know. One thing is that my father was vocal about everything. He would not think about consequences, who it would upset or not. If something is good and worth talking about, he would speak about it. The other accused asked for anticipatory bail and they did get it. But my father asked for bail and it got denied. It should be really clear that my father’s action in this case was sharing the news report’s link that someone else posted. Just clicking the share button. 

U: What are the different ways in which you and your father’s supporters have raised awareness around his disappearance and arrest?

MP: Due to the pandemic, I would keep thinking of ways of how to protest or ask where is my father, to go and look for him and ask for people’s help. My father was taken during the pandemic, it was starting to hit Bangladesh and even before it reached everyone, the journalists and the mainstream media were telling me that they don’t have slots, they don’t have time in their news TV channels, they don’t have space in their newspapers.

Finally, I decided to [start] a movement or campaign online, using social media. As the whole country was in lockdown, everyone was more focused on social media. So I started organising a campaign online, through a Facebook page: “Where is Kajol?” I asked the question “Where is Kajol?” I also hosted an exhibition with my father’s work. I also tried to portray what my family was going through, through writing and making content, trying to show people through my lens, how I’m living. I also organised live discussions with journalists, teachers, artists, photographers, lawyers and human-rights activists. And later, I organised one [discussion] with international organisations and participants. Everyone has been trying to keep my father and our family in the news and raise awareness. There has been a lot of international support as well. We got to know that people from many countries have written directly to our home minister and prime minister, requesting them to take my father’s case into consideration. 

Circa 1995 | “My father had just formed a new political student group. Here he is giving a speech with his fellow student in the Teacher-Student Centre at the University of Dhaka.” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK

U: What is the kind of response that the campaign has generated on a global and national scale?

MP: I launched the campaign after going into lockdown. That was our family’s voice and still is regarding asking for my father. That is our own space to speak about our pain and sufferings. It has played a huge role. The number of people who got to know about my father and my father’s work as well as the injustice being done to him, the [Facebook] page had a lot do with it. It’s also active on Instagram and Twitter.

In other cases [of enforced disappearance], you would never see any family member speaking out because I think that everyone gets scared. But in my case, I really didn’t have the option to be scared, because I thought that my father was taken and I absolutely have to do something and look for him, and demand justice and his freedom. There were a lot of people who would tell me to stay safe and I would also get scared with the DSA situation in the country. In the recent months the cases in DSA have sky-rocketed. Even a ninth-grade student was arrested under DSA for supposedly mocking the prime minister. Even those who are supporting tell me to be safe and not be too aggressive. It also worries me because I am not at all aggressive. But again, we cannot stay still or else my father would get lost in the news. People will go to the next thing.

U: You have used photography in your campaign, specifically through projects like “Where is my father?” and “Portrait of my father.” Could you speak about the role of photography in building this campaign?

MP: Staying at home, I had to express my emotions in different ways so that people can have empathy for us. The photography work “Portrait of my father” was very important for me. I didn’t really have a digital camera with me as my father’s camera was with him when he was taken and so what I did was with the help of my friend and associate. I set up everything and took pictures of my father’s objects. The idea behind it is to give a secondary experience, not directly looking, but looking through a glass. So, I am putting the regular objects of my father, his [camera] lenses, his glasses, his toothbrush—things that he would use on a regular basis—in front of a webcam and pictures were taken by another person’s camera pointed at the screen. So what this gives is a secondary experience through a lens, you are not directly looking at it but from two layers behind. That is how I tried to show, that this is my father, these are the everyday objects and they are waiting for him. These are the objects that also completed the person that is still missing and not home. 

And “Where is my father?” was actually one of the most powerful driving factors of the campaign. As my father was taken away from us physically, I digitally manipulated my father out of the photo albums that everyone has. Like all the families in Bangladesh, almost everyone has a photo-album of their families, with printed pictures. What I did was that I scanned them digitally and I cut out my father, basically taking my father out of memories too. Because, as he was not physically present, he is only present in memories.

U: Tell us about the photographs that you have used in this work.

MP: It has been a mix—there are pictures of us, the four of us together and then there are pictures of him with his friends or there are pictures of him in action, of him taking pictures, working as a journalist. The whole life of a person, in an album and I took him out as he is not present. He only exists in memory now.

U: What does it mean when you further take him out of the memories as well, by digitally manipulating him out of the image?

Circa 1989 | “My father smoking a cigarette in Surja Sen Hall, his residence at Dhaka University.” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK

MP: This work was done when he was disappeared and we didn’t really know, if he was alive or dead. If he is dead, will we get his dead body? Or if he is alive, how long will it take? Will he ever get back to us? And if he does get back, what kind of a person will he be? Like if he comes after a really long time, how will he see the world? So physically he was absent, but all we have was his memory and people also have their own memory. So, what I tried to do is connect with all the other people, mostly middle-class people, through an album, something that every one of them have in their homes. Like their albums are still full, and they are in the pandemic with their families but when they look at my family’s album, they see that my father has been taken out. People connected to it emotionally and got a small taste of what our family’s tragic experience has been so far. What they got to see is a person who is an integral part of my life, of our family’s life, that person has been taken out. That’s when I feel the people finally got to experience firsthand, the feeling of a missing family member. Because all the other times, it always looks like “that” person’s family member is missing. But when they saw “Where is my father?,” they saw that this could be us—we also have a photo-album, someone could just disappear or be taken out from our album as well.

U:  What were some of the initial ideas that eventually led to the final outcome?

MP: The idea came when I was looking at the pictures myself, even I got really emotional looking at them as there are so many things that come to your mind when you look at old photos. In some photos I was really young and I could see that he was taking care of me. I decided to show this, that someone can take my father away from us physically and I can also do it by taking him out from the memories.

U: Are there any images from the series that you would like to talk about?

MP: Yeah. There are two pictures—one where he is putting oil on me and one where he is bathing me. When I was really young, he would do all these things to take care of me. I always heard about these stories from my mother, but I don’t remember them firsthand. I see from the pictures and it really connects with me that that’s the kind of father he was at home. He would personally give me baths and take care of me. The reason that I actually started going out and looking for him and demanding his freedom, was because other than an emotional perspective, I know him as a beautiful man. He always stands behind his friends and family. And anyone who is in need. I have never seen him say no to someone who needs help. The biggest motivating factor for the campaign wasn’t my love for him, the emotional part, it was a lot more out of duty. A duty to do it for someone who would do the same for you. So those pictures also remind that this person would take care of me this way and he was disappeared for 53 days and he is still sitting there in jail. And I don’t know how much longer it would take. On his calls, he is asking me questions, “Will I get out before Eid and spend Eid with you?” And I don’t have answers. So, this is really difficult, for me to take these calls and speak to him. Because I feel ashamed. If he had been in my place, if I were to disappear, he would do a lot better job at getting me out and home safe a lot faster.

1999 | “Here I am a less than a year old. My father used to take care of me at that time in our maternal grandparent's house in Purbo Kafrul, Dhaka, Bangladesh.” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK
1999 | “My father giving a massage with mustard oil, which is a very Bengali practice. It is believed that a massage with oil in the morning will make the babies tender and their bones stronger.” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK

U: How did you decide upon photography as a medium for political activism and awareness?

MP: I am a 21-year-old final year student at Jagannath University. I never really participated in any activism before this and I’m not politically involved with any organisation. I’m not apolitical but just not affiliated with any organisation. I wasn’t really practicing writing or photography beforehand. I did have a fascination for them and appreciated them, but I never really practice them. But when he was taken, I understood we need to show people. It was not just enough to state your emotion, you have to express and create it in the other people. That’s how human beings really connect.

2019 | “A family trip after a really long time. We travelled to a tea garden in the Sylhet district and took tons of selfies.” COURTESY MONOROM POLOK

This interview has been edited and condensed.