Friday, February 14, 2014
The first month of 2014 was a tough one for Hindus in Bangladesh. Violence raged in over two dozen separate Hindu villages across the country, ending in the murder of two men, the rape of at least five women, and the destruction of many homes, temples and businesses. Typically, the attacks involve assailants from outside the villages. They continue a pattern that injured 188 Hindus in 2013.
In this South Asian nation of 153 million, Hindus make up a scant 8.5% of the population. As a minority, they are often singled out for abuse. “It has almost become a norm to attack the Hindus in Bangladesh after the general elections every five years,” Adhir Pal, an elderly Hindu, told national media outlet bdnews24.com. When I visited his village, Malopara, this January, every neighbor I interviewed seemed to think that violent intrusions are a frequent experienced for Hindus in Bangladesh.
It’s easy to conclude that the repeated attacks on Hindus are coming from Muslims, since this group constitutes 89% of all Bangladeshis. But does the religious definition of these groups mean the attacks are motivated by religious differences, or could they be the result of one or more other factors?
As Adhir Pal points out, some violence is linked to national politics. Residents say the attacks in Malopara in January came from local people aligned with Bangladesh’s opposition parties, which includes the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Islamic fundamentalist ally Jamaat-e-Islami. The attackers, some of whom carried guns, told villagers not to vote for the incumbent Awami League. The Hindu community said their aggressors had correctly identified their allegiance to the ruling party, but since they regard attacks as nearly inevitable, residents say they voted for Awami League anyway. (The party won the January 5 election while the opposition boycotted it and lost parliamentary seats.)
As a slim minority of Bangladesh’s voters, of course, Hindus could not elect any party alone. But while the conflation of politics and religion accounts for some attacks, it doesn’t explain others.
Reports of some altercations describe long-simmering personal resentments coming to a head at minor conflicts over sports matches, wedding plans and the like. But in most attacks, causes are impersonal. In Dinajpur, a district near Bangladesh’s northern border, residents said their attackers were landless peasants who had migrated from India years before and that the attacks were an attempt to scare them into fleeing, leaving their farmland up for grabs. In a country where climate change looms, conflicts over land are not capricious or surprising.
The pressure to grab arable land recalls the preludes to Rwandan genocide of 1994, which was motivated in part by overpopulation. The two conflicts share many underlying factors, most of which are traceable to power shifts after colonialism’s end. What they don’t share, however, is a religious basis. (In Rwanda, the Hutu ethnic majority slaughtered the Tutsi minority, and the Christianity common to both groups wasn’t the issue.)
With all that said, religious differences probably did influence some of the two dozen Bangladeshi villages that saw violence last month. In some localities, Hindu temples and their idols became the focal point of vandalism. The group most commonly fingered as perpetrators for attacks was Jamaat-e-Islami. The Islamist group has been increasingly pushed to the outskirts of Bangladeshi electoral politics, but remains popular—and angry—nationwide.
Ultimately, the multiple causes of anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh point to the complexity of identifying religious motivations for conflict. But they also suggest that conflicts that appear religious may be solved through multiple means—which means the irreducible philosophical differences between faiths need not be a block to peace.
In January, over three dozen organizations held rallies demanding justice and protection for Hindus. Eventually, the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister, and even the opposition party leaders joined in. Although the attacks have not yet fully abated, the majority of the country seems to want peace.
First published in the Religion Dispatches, University of South California, USA, February 13, 2014
at Friday, February 14, 2014
Friday, February 07, 2014
More trials for Bangladesh’s deflated opposition
TEN years after they arrived, the weapons have found their victims. In April 2004 police in Chittagong, the main port city of Bangladesh, intercepted a shipment of rifles, submachine guns with silencers, 25,000 hand grenades and more, worth some $5m. Made in China, the arms may have been shipped with help from Pakistani spies set on causing trouble for India. The weapons were intended for rebels in Assam state in India’s north-east, where insurgencies rumble on.
For years in Bangladesh the legal case went nowhere. Those involved in the arms shipment were ignored. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), under Khaleda Zia, then prime minister, showed no interest in prosecutions. Only after the Awami League, the current government, took office in 2009 did prosecutors begin to consider the crime seriously. On January 30th a trial court sentenced 14 men—most of them from or affiliated to opposition parties—to death on smuggling charges related to the arms haul.
Assuming the sentences are upheld by the higher courts, they carry great political as well as legal weight. By implication, they embroil Mrs Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman. He is judged by many to be the BNP’s next leader—though he is living in London while corruption cases pile up against him at home. Among those sentenced to hang is Lutfuzzaman Babar, a long-time flunky of Mr Rahman’s. This week the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, vowed that her government would work to prove that, in the light of Mr Rahman’s influence at the time, he knew all about the weapons.
Others sentenced to death include a former head of Bangladesh’s military intelligence, another high-ranking Bangladeshi spy, plus (in absentia) a leader of an Assamese insurgent group who is on India’s most-wanted list. Of major political significance, the court also found guilty Motiur Rahman Nizami, who leads Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party and a close ally of the BNP. He has already been indicted by a separate court, looking at war crimes committed in Bangladesh’s war of secession from Pakistan in 1971. He faces the prospect of being sentenced to death twice over.
Jamaat has promised protests against the smuggling verdicts. Though the party has a reputation for street violence, its capacity to create trouble seems diminished in recent months. Many Jamaat activists have either been arrested or shot dead. The BNP also looks utterly broken, unable to persuade followers to return to disruptive street protests against Sheikh Hasina, whether over court cases or elections.
By contrast, the prime minister looks increasingly content. Her Awami League won a general election on January 5th that was boycotted by the BNP and Jamaat. Aid donors and other observers who worried about the poll’s credibility now seem to be coming to terms with five more years of Sheikh Hasina. The official aid agencies of Britain and America have funded an opinion survey suggesting that the Awami League would have won the election even without the boycott. That is a handy fillip for the government.
India, Bangladesh’s giant neighbour, will be pleased with things, too. It is especially close to Sheikh Hasina and the avowedly secular Awami League, and it endorsed the January election. Those who set foreign policy in Delhi are anxious to prevent Bangladesh becoming, as it was before, a haven for insurgent groups that operate in India. They want Bangladesh to resist the sort of Islamist extremism prevalent in Pakistan. And they want it to help limit the flow of illegal Bangladeshi migrants flooding into India for work.
Sheikh Hasina shares India’s aims, while doing everything to flatten the opposition at home. It bodes ill for democratic government. But the state of the opposition—pinned down in court, on the streets and in parliament—suggests a modicum of outward calm may prevail for a while.
First published in the Economist, February 8th 2014
Monday, February 03, 2014
There was some buzz again last week that Dr Manmohan Singh was contemplating a visit to Pakistan next month, before he hangs his boots. It is one of those rumours which in the past nine years has been neither denied by the foreign office nor confirmed. And the ‘news’ gained ground when a visiting bunch of Pakistani journalists reported that all that was left was a fixing of dates. Meanwhile it appears that the Prime Minister might instead be traveling to Myanmar to attend the summit of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). The interesting grouping consists of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal. Look East Sir, look East.
Pakistan is too occupied with ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban — which it calls a stake holder in its domestic political process — to bother with the Indian Prime Minister. Try figuring this out: the Taliban has asked Imran Khan to negotiate on its behalf in the peace talks with the government!
Last week, that Pakistani ‘social worker of repute’ Hafiz Saeed, no wait, ‘Professor’ Hafiz Saeed said in a rally that India was exerting pressure on the Bangladeshi government to hang Jamaat leaders. He was referring to the death sentence handed down by a Chittagong court to 14 men, including Bangladesh Jamaat chief Motiur Rahman Nizami, in the sensational 10 truck arms smuggling case of 2004. ULFA chief Paresh Barua was also given the death penalty in absentia.
In April 2004, Bangladesh police had seized 4,930 types of sophisticated firearms, 27,020 grenades, 840 rocket launchers, 300 rockets, 2,000 grenade launchers, 6,392 magazines and 1,140,520 bullets when they were being loaded on to 10 trucks headed to North East India. Barua, then in Bangladesh, worked closely with the ISI and the BNP, especially Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rehman. Both Barua and Tarique fled Bangladesh when the Awami League government came to power.
The ISI has always maintained its links with the Jamaat in Bangladesh, either through Bangladesh’s National Security Intelligence during BNP rule or lately through various non-state actors. Three Myanmar born Pakistani Taliban operatives were caught in Dhaka last month on a ‘jihad mission’.
Not just the ISI, Pakistan’s politicians too are vocal in their support for trans-national jihadi terrorists. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Chaudhary Nisar described the capital punishment to Bangladesh’s war criminal Abdul Qadir Mollah as ‘judicial murder’. Mollah, known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, and his Al Badr cohorts smashed to death a two year old on the floor, slit the throats of his pregnant mother and two sisters, and raped his two other sisters, one of whom died from her wounds. The one who survived testified against Mollah. 43 years later, Mollah was convicted and hanged for killing 344 civilians in 1971. A few days later, Pakistani politician Javed Hashmi (PTI) called Mollah as Shaheed-e-Pakistan. These are the kind of men that Pakistan’s leaders call heroes.
More than four decades after losing half of its country, Pakistan has still not come to terms with the fact that Bangladesh is systematically going ahead with bringing to trial the war crimes accused of 1971. And during that process, historical facts are coming to the fore once again. Pakistanis have been fed on a diet of lies about their history and their leaders are quite content to perpetuate that state of ignorance.
The denial runs deeper as evidenced from a report in Pakistani newspaper, The Nation (Jan 24, 2014) which denounces a Bollywood film to be released this month as an Indian conspiracy to defame Pakistan rather than an artistic interpretation by a private Indian film producer. The article says, “Based on anti-Pakistan propaganda, ‘The Bastard Child’, (now renamed ‘Children of War’) a Hindi language movie, has recently been released in India to tarnish the image of Pakistan and its armed forces around the world.”
“The movie, which has been made on the subject of 1970-1971 events in East Pakistan, depicts Pakistan Army in East Pakistan as an occupation army. It screens alleged atrocities committed by Pakistan Army personnel in East Pakistan, which ignited flames for its separation… Notwithstanding, peace endeavours initiated by government of Pakistan, India does not spare any opportunity to prick Pakistan. It quotes “sources” saying “This propaganda movie is an attempt to bring bad name to Pakistan.” If the YouTube trailers of the film provoked this extreme reaction, it is quite clear that the film will be banned in Pakistan, depriving yet another generation from knowing the truth about 1971.
First published in Mid-Day, India, January 3, 2014
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
In early December, after weeks of strikes and road blocks called by the political opposition, the dairy farmers of the Rangpur district, in northern Bangladesh, started protesting the disruption to their business by pouring milk onto highways. For many weeks, they hadn’t been able to get their milk to the processing and packaging plants in the capital; instead, they had to sell it to local confectioners and small restaurants. Supply far outstripped demand.
Across the country, an average of half a million liters of milk was dumped every day that the opposition called a general strike or a blockade. After many such protests since late October, the dairy industry was on its knees. Many small farmers, like those in Rangpur, had borrowed money to buy their livestock and could no longer afford to feed their cows; they started selling the animals and looking for other ways to make a living.
Supermarket shelves in
grew more sparse. They carried little fresh milk, and no butter, except for
shockingly expensive brands imported from India
The crisis erupted after the opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami, objected to holding a national election unless the government first handed over power to a neutral caretaker body; it feared rigging otherwise. When the ruling Awami League refused, the opposition leader Khaleda Zia called a series of crippling protests.
B.N.P. supporters and Jamaat-e-Islami unleashed their anger on anyone who defied the strikes, destroying roads, damaging rail lines, torching buses — and killing about 200 people since late October, according to the British newspaper The Independent.
The milk farmers’ plight was just one example of the colossal waste caused by the chaos surrounding the election. Supply roads to the capital were obstructed, and across the country, milk soured on roads and vegetables rotted in fields. The garment industry, a major engine of the economy, was in jeopardy because of delayed deliveries to international buyers. Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told Reuters early this month that up to $1 billion in orders were at risk in the weeks ahead if stability did not return.
But as political negotiations foundered, the opposition decided to boycott the election. So when the vote took place on Jan. 5, like many of my fellow citizens, I didn’t bother to cast a ballot. The sole candidate in my constituency — an ally of the Awami League — was running uncontested. Some 152 other members of Parliament from the Awami League and affiliated parties also ran against no competition, and the 147 remaining Awami League contestants faced off against weak independent candidates. (In the end, the Awami League won 232 out of 300 seats.)
Bangladesh is now in the
unprecedented situation of having a Parliament with no real opposition.
How much staying power can such a government have? Enough to serve the whole term, it turns out, no matter how dysfunctional the situation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has had the good sense of forming a new cabinet that is relatively fresh and untainted, leaving behind many ministers suspected of corruption. And while the Awami League has taken a hit in terms of popularity for staging an election with no serious contender, the B.N.P. seems to have come out of the experience even more discredited.
Many people have been put off by its hard-line stance and violent tactics. The B.N.P. has refused to sever its links to the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami, even though that group was widely believed to be behind much of the street violence. On polling day and in subsequent weeks, Hindu minorities were targeted by Jamaat-e-Islami members simply for having gone out to vote. Especially in northern districts, where religious minorities are concentrated, Hindu families have been attacked, their homes torched and their businesses destroyed. According to one count, up to 700 people may have been affected. These attacks have been widely condemned, and not just by Hindus, with protests taking place throughout the country.
Most important, economic considerations will prevail over concerns about political representation, and this will favor the new status quo. The cost of more upheaval would be too high, and the prevailing mood now is for restoring economic stability. Businesses cannot afford another disruptive year. The Center for Policy Dialogue, an independent think tank, estimates the total economic loss at more than $6.3 billion. The transport sector has borne the brunt of the losses, followed by the agricultural sector and the clothing and textile industries.
Previous elections in
Bangladesh were celebrated with
great fanfare: Voters would display their inky thumbs with pride. Not this
time. Still, after the near-standstill of this fall, a semblance of normality
has returned. There has been no major public outcry yet over this lopsided
election. Children are going back to school. The roads in the capital are
reassuringly clogged with traffic again. Butter has returned to the supermarket
shelves. The fundamental political issues remain, but for now, an uneasy peace
First published in The New York Times, January 29, 2014
Tahmima Anam is a writer and anthropologist, and the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Although situated in close proximity to
Pakistan, Bangladesh has to this point somehow avoided
becoming a major headache for Washington.
Yet, given recent developments, Bangladesh
could soon cause U.S.
officials a migraine.
However, first it is important to understand what is at stake. Over the years,
Bangladesh has transformed itself
in marvelous ways, serving as an example to other developing nations. The
Bangladesh Bank (equivalent to the Federal Reserve has
the second foreign
currency deposits in South Asia after India, while the country’s garment
industry has become the world’s second largest. Significantly, this
multi-billion-dollar industry—housed in the third largest Muslim country in the
world—is largely driven by women. In Bangladesh, many more girls are in
school than boys.
demonstrates an array of human development , ranging from decreased mortality rates to
increased average incomes and less poverty. A Bangladeshi institution, Grameen
Bank, has pioneered microcredit financing. Additionally, the world’s largest
non-governmental organization, BRAC, has become a globally active entity whose
latest tasks include helping rebuild Afghanistan. Corruption
notwithstanding, some state institutions—including the Bangladesh
army—have an impressive record as well. Some may associate Bangladesh’s
army with mutinies and coups, but in fact it has also been lauded for its
extraordinary contribution to U.N. peacekeeping missions. In honor of the great
services provided by Bangladeshi forces, the African nation of Sierra Leone
has declared Bangla its second language.
shelters half-a-million registered Rohingya minorities in its territory.
Similarly, ghettoes inhabited by people of Pakistani origin still dwell in the
heart of Dhaka. Neither Islamabad
nor Naypyidaw is willing to take back these descendants—making Bangladesh the
de facto safe haven for these displaced people.
To be sure,
also accused of providing havens for more unsavory populations. Delhi thinks Bangladesh
is a potential sanctuary for separatists fighting for the independence of the
northeastern states of India.
has also been accused of harboring militants sponsored by the Pakistani
intelligence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some in Washington
are concerned that Bangladesh
could fall into the hands of terrorists. This is a highly misplaced concern,
Since human rights and promoting democracy have been cornerstones of
foreign policy, it is understandable that America is unable to applaud the
deeply flawed election of late that returned Hasina to power. Washington’s cautious efforts in recent
weeks to help bring the government and opposition together—so that they can
come to an agreement to hold a fresh election—are welcome. Nevertheless, much
more needs to be done.
U.S. policymakers seem to have realized Bangladesh’s
overall importance in a number of sectors. Although President Obama has GSP
(Generalized System of Preferences) benefits for Bangladeshi garment
manufactures, “Made in Bangladesh”
still remains a trusted brand among American retailers and consumers. American
conglomerates now consider Bangladesh
a lucrative destination with the rise of a strong middle-class population. What
is less clear is whether Washington has
strategic importance. Thanks to geography, the country lies somewhat
equidistant from three nuclear powers. It sits along an important channel that
transports massive amount of freight every year.
Washington, which has already wisely increased its to Bangladesh, would be wise to build a strategic partnership with Bangladesh in order to help protect American interests in the vast Indian ocean—a region that stretches from Eastern Africa to Southeast Asia, with Bangladesh right in the middle.
Unfortunately, none of this can happen if
political deadlock continues to grind on. Ongoing political clashes can end up
in lawlessness, which could enable indigenous vigilante groups to proliferate.
This in turn could provide an environment ripe for foreign insurgent groups.
What this all suggests it that despite
many success stories—it faces many impending dangers ahead. Therefore, it is
time that Washington adopts a more robust
policy on Bangladesh.
A prime focus of a revamped policy should be trade. Washington
should pursue a bilateral trade partnership that emphasizes not only commerce,
but also the importance of labor rights, transparency, and countercorruption
measures within Bangladesh’s
In addition, American cooperation, whether technological or financial, to bolster
Bangladesh’s energy sector would come as a great
relief to Dhaka. Bangladesh’s economy is as
projected due to acute scarcities of power. With a steady growth of
urbanization and dwindling indigenous energy sources (mainly in the form of
natural gas), Bangladesh
thus is badly in need energy assistance—an area Washington can be of great help. The U.S. has a strong interest in greater energy
security throughout South Asia, and has advocated for cross-regional pipelines
and financed energy projects in Pakistan.
is a logical next step.
On the political side,
Washington should exert
pressure on both the ruling party and opposition to take disputes off the
streets and on to the negotiating table. Both parties should be encouraged to
explore new avenues for peaceful dialogue—such as social media—and other
nonviolent means to engage with the masses. If democracy is for the people,
then it is virtually absent in Bangladesh
where political parties show little interest in being accountable to their
embodiment of a moderate Muslim nation—is now imperiled. The United States can no longer be complacent about
the nation a famous American secretary of State once notoriously referred to as
a “basket case”—yet has now become, despite its economic and democratic achievements,
one of the biggest tinderboxes in Asia.
First published in The National Interest, January 27, 2014