In a brief conversation with The Business Standard, Philip Gain shared his thoughts about human rights in Bangladesh and how we have evolved as a nation
The books in shelves and file organisers have shielded the office from urban cacophony of Dhaka city. A man, very good at camouflaging his age is absorbed in papers in the office room.
The man, Philip Gain noticed the correspondents from The Business Standard and stood up to greet them.
As a director of Social Environment and human development, an organisation devoted to human rights since 1993, his office has been serving as the headquarter.
Uncomfortable to be named a human rights activist, he said that, "I bring out the facts not with the intention of bringing about any revolution. It feels great when people get benefitted from it."
In a brief conversation with The Business Standard, Philip Gain shared his thoughts about human rights in Bangladesh and how we have evolved as a nation.
Philip Gain repeatedly said he did not start his journey with the intention of becoming a human rights activist yet that was the first question everyone who know about his works asks him.
When did you decide to become a human rights activist?
It was not something I planned to be. I was a student of journalism and was involved with reporting since student life. I worked in Dhaka courier, Holiday and Daily Sangbad.
My work took me to Madhupur forest where indigenous people (Garo) were being evicted from their land to execute the social forest programme successfully. I found that unfair and started writing against it.
Not just in Madhupur forest, the pattern of my work exposed me to a number of unpleasant errors in system. All I wanted was to bring those errors into light so that everyone knew the truth. So, there is no fixed time that I can point to, saying that that was the moment I decided to work for human rights. It came to me spontaneously.
When we were students, I along with my friends formed a human rights group named co-ordinating council for Human Rights in Bangladesh in 1987. It did not sustain for long.
After that I formed SEHD, Social environment and human development in 1993.
I always worked as an independent reporter and sometimes my reports had been appreciated internationally. Some of the newspapers asked me to work for them which I could not accept as I felt it will restrict my dedication for SEHD.
Has your childhood have an effect on your activities?
I have come from a village and travelled to the half of the world. I grew up in Gopalganj near a beel. School had no appeal in my eyes. My father was a farmer. The filed, the water and adventure there had been my life.
This is the reason I passed SSC at the age of 20. I was admitted to Saint Joseph school in class IX.
I have a strong connection with my roots. I still go to my village regularly. This connection of course has helped me to connect with others.
Why did you want to work for human rights?
The reason may be that I believe in social and economic justice and I feel that it should give me an opportunity to serve everyone.
It is not that I work for human rights only. I have a book named "Handbook of Election" to my credit. My "Bangladesh Environment Facing the 21st century" is a recommended reading in many universities.
I love investigating on social and economic structure and hope to publish a book on that too.
All of these are closely related to each other and also relevant to human rights.
In my reporting days I was fond of critical reporting. What I do is critically approach those issues. None of them are unrelated to human rights. I try to show others their connections with human rights.
The fields my organisation SEHD cover include marginalised people, sex workers, indigenous people, all of them are standing on identical infrastructure. I expose that to the world.
How your activities have influenced a change? What changes have you been able to bring by your activities?
I never did anything to change the world drastically overnight. I have raised my voice when I considered it my moral duty and often to influence people and policies. For example, the time when rubber forest project had to stop because of my reporting or my documentary on Fulbari touching human emotions.
While working with the exploited ones, have you ever felt helpless?
Everyone is aware of their rights; they know when they are being exploited. It may be in same scale but they do. While working with them, I felt more empathetic than helpless.
If you take the, the tea workers in tea estate. They deserve gratuity when their labour is being exploited. They can start revolting. Then what is after that?
They do not have any possession; they do not have anywhere else to go if the home is snatched away from them given by their lords. This is why they give in.
And you cannot blame them for that. In this case you have to be strategic. These realisations have made me more empathetic.
Has it ever happened that you went to a place to help people but they attacked you?
When you go to a place for the first time, you are not going to receive cooperation at the outset. You have to give it some time. You have to earn their trust.
There were difficulties of course but I managed those. Moreover, I stayed in places for a long time wherever I have gone. So, I had the opportunity to manage things one step at a time.
How did you manage those difficulties?
You cannot go anywhere with any preconception. Preconceptions make communication difficult. Going with an open mind to have first-hand learning has helped me a lot.
Have you ever been threatened?
There were threats which is normal when you are doing something impactful. But I never lost my confidence. Besides a little precaution was taken when the situations used to get ugly.
Share with us something you enjoyed the most while working for so many years.
I enjoy whatever I do and are gaining new experiences every day. As I am working on marginalised people now, I would like to share the colours I have come across while working with them.
Everyone portray the misery of marginalised people but are they all about their miseries? When I worked with them I realised that they may not have money but they have their own culture own beauty. They have language of their own, and comes with strange practices.
I came to know that Bede people have their own language named Thora.
What are the barriers of working for human rights here?
Any sustainable work will have barriers. The main barriers here are that we do not have much resource or research. There is little scope for researches in Bangladesh.
Financial barrier is a great concern, so is the concern for competent workforce. You also need a certain amount of freedom to carry out human right works.
I had my interest and had been autonomous in my work. I managed to have financial support and survived. Not everyone is able to manage it like this.
Above all, most of the human right works done here are donor-driven. Donor-driven work is dependent on the donor's standard of right and wrong which may be inappropriate for this culture. This is why these works sometimes lose credibility.
Are there any suggestions for those who want to walk on your path?
My only suggestion is to focus on developing skills. One must mature intellectual clarity among them if they really want to work for human rights.
What are the changes in Bangladesh over time?
No one cannot deny that we have established our economic stability. It is good but not enough.
We have been in huge national debt and loan defaulters are increasing in number.
Besides there is restrictions on freedom of expression.
Government has said there will be no poverty by 2030 where the statistics say we still have 50 million marginalized people living in poverty.
There is little effort to address misery on this part. These people do not think that poverty is going to be abolished by 2030.
Again it is true that you cannot fix all the problems at a time. So are still wandering between good and bad.
Are you optimistic about the progress on human rights situation?
It is true that, in Bangladesh we have been lagging behind in areas of rights, dignity and justice.
Yet I am hopeful. The bravery we have in our blood is obliged to bring a positive change in the end.
Criticising the dissimilarities are helpful for sustainable progress. Resolving these issues will get us to some new heights.