Sunday, July 06, 2014

In Bangladesh, the Steady Pursuit of Justice and Freedom

Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center (third from right), with Grameen Bank members.
Last week, at the invitation of my friend Muhammad Yunus, I traveled to Bangladesh, a truly humbling and inspiring experience. I met so many incredible people struggling to improve their country and their lives. I wrote a letter to my daughters about my travels, which follows:

Dear Cara, Mariah and Michaela,

Visiting Bangladesh has been a lifelong dream of mine, but all that I had heard about a people who love freedom so much that they have withstood great armies, famine and intractable poverty could not prepare me for what I've seen in the last three days. 

The Bengali patriots' courage and endurance in the face of the Pakistani army forty years ago is the stuff of legend in our family. I remember your Great Uncle Teddy telling us about his visit to the Calcutta refugee camps, where tens of thousands lived not in tents but in sewer pipes. The people in these camps had fled the mass killings -- some would say genocide -- that the United States had failed to stop, as the Nixon Administration's official policy was to choose our relationship with Pakistan over those who shared our love of freedom. Great Uncle Teddy promised to return when the country gained independence, and a few months later, he and Uncle Joe were among the first international visitors to the newborn country of Bangladesh.

Given what I'd heard from Uncle Teddy, I suppose I should not have been surprised by the inspiring people that my colleague Lydia Allen and I met in Bangladesh, people who endure extreme hardship for the freedom that they love and that they demand for their country.

In a small wooden room packed with women in bright saris, we met a proud shareholder of the Grameen Bank -- the transformative microlending institution founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus -- who borrowed 5,000 taka (about $80) and bought a rickshaw, and then 20,000 taka ($240) and bought a cow, and then 30,000 taka ($480) and bought land. Thanks to her hard work and the Grameen Bank, she now has a house full of furniture, a field full of food, water, a working toilet, and a television set. She saves 100 taka per month, and this year she will receive 100,000 taka ($750) from her savings.

We met a store owner and her husband, who borrowed from Grameen to buy solar panels, which have allowed them to expand their storefront and provide light to the brick house they share with three siblings and their in-laws. 

We met a young woman on a Grameen scholarship who will be the first woman in her family to go to college. She is majoring in computer science and plans to start a business in the IT sector that will transform her neighborhood.

We met ten women who sit on the board of the Grameen Bank, borrowers all. They're angry at the government and concerned for the future of the bank. The government recently ousted Dr. Yunus from the board of his own bank on the pretense that he had overstayed the mandatory retirement age of sixty. Then, finding no other legal way to do so, the government cajoled the rubber-stamp Parliament to change a banking law for the specific purpose of ousting the impoverished women from the Grameen board and replacing them with ruling party toadies, who, the women fear, will transform the multibillion-dollar bank that has helped so many escape poverty into just another slush fund for kleptocrats to draw upon. 

We met a dozen women, many of them lawyers, all of them leaders of NGOs that address pressing issues like indigenous rights, due process of law, violence against women, dowry battles, rape, and environmental justice. Many have been arrested, and many live under daily threat. One said her husband had been "disappeared" in apparent retaliation for her work. They are scared of the nation's security forces, which are known for kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial executions. And yet they wake up in the morning, kiss their children and their husbands, and return to work, a daily show of quiet courage.

We met a woman who worked at the collapsed Rana Plaza sweatshop who said she never wants to work in the apparel industry again. I met another who said the same thing, but added, "But we are poor, and we must work."

They were among a crowd lining the hallway and sitting at intake tables at the offices of the Rana Plaza Claims Administration, the nonprofit group charged with addressing reparations for the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. It is an impressive operation, manned by a team of dedicated professionals in labor, law and computer science, intent on making payouts to every single victim for physical and psychological injuries and to the scores of dependents who lost the family breadwinner in the tragedy. They have $17 million to hand out, and calculate the need will be closer to $40 million, but the fund is voluntary and no law compels the brands to pay their fair share. While some have been generous, too many others have refused to participate, because no law compels them to do so.

We met U.S. Ambassador Dan Mozena, a man singularly committed to advancing U.S. interests abroad by protecting basic rights and increasing the prosperity of the people of Bangladesh. He invited me to visit the Edward M. Kennedy Center and the Ted Cafe, a gathering place created by the embassy for NGOs to meet and speak in safety, and for young people to learn about our country. 

Michaela, the book shelf of one entire room was jammed with SAT prep books, looking all too familiar. Thanks to Ambassador Mozena, you will have plenty of competition from young Bangladeshis as you apply for college, determined to gain an education at U.S. schools, and return to their homeland with new hope for the future.

We met Adil Rahman Khan, who has organized a team of 400-plus human rights monitors and defenders across the country to investigate and report on violations of voting rights; on crackdowns on free speech and assembly; and on torture, extrajudicial execution, disappearances, and more--holding the government accountable for its failures to protect the freedom that the Bangladeshi people won at such great cost 40 years ago. Adil seeks accountability in a country where 197 anti-corruption officers are presently under investigation for corruption themselves. For his actions, Adil lives under a constant threat of death. Last year, after issuing a report documenting a massacre by government forces of 61 protestors, he was taken away and held without trial for 62 days in a filthy cell, ridden with bedbugs and rotten food.

How proud Uncle Teddy would be to know that this man, who personifies all the values that Teddy and Grandpa Bobby so admired, will receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award later this year.

And, of course, we met with my dear friend Dr. Yunus. He invited us to come to Dhaka for Social Business Day, where people from scores of countries across the globe gathered to share their designs and experiences with creating businesses which seek not profits for shareholders but solutions to problems like housing or food access.

You were still in diapers when Dr. Yunus came to our home nearly 15 years ago and I interviewed him for my book Speak Truth to Power. I have always been struck by the sense of peace and joy he conveys in the many lectures I have since seen him deliver. But I never appreciated how incredible that was until I saw him in Bangladesh. He is under unremitting pressure from a government that seeks to destroy all he has given his life to build. And yet he endures, and invites us to somehow find peace amidst the chaos in our lives and find our joy through service. His steady bearing reminded me of these lines from Rudyard Kipling's poem "If":

"If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
If you can watch the things you gave your life for, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools...

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch...

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it..."


By this measure, Dr. Yunus has achieved the world.

What an amazing place, what an amazing country. As we in America celebrate our own Independence Day this week, I hope we can take inspiration from the people of Bangladesh and rededicate ourselves to democracy and freedom, knowing that the price may be high, but the sacrifice is well worthwhile.

Love,

Momma
First published in The Huffington Post, July 7, 2014
Kerry Kennedy is President of Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Bangladesh’s Rotten-Mango Crisis

TAHMINA ANAM

As an apprentice anthropologist, I once had the misfortune of attempting to converse with the Indian critical theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Professor Spivak, who translated the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and wrote the famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was visiting Dhaka, Bangladesh, and I went to meet her. After patiently listening while I asked a series of dumb questions about discursive practice, she turned and said, cryptically, “I came for the mangoes.”

Ah, the mango. It may be a cliché pitfall for the South Asian writer, but for this academic, famous for her impenetrable prose, the mango brought the esoteric down to earth. Ms. Spivak is regarded as one of the great minds of her generation, but in Dhaka, she was, like everyone else, there for the mangoes.

In Bangladesh, the obsession with the mango comes from its evanescence. The fruit’s intense seasonality means that even the more prosaic varieties are available for only a few weeks of the summer. The most prized is the langra: Its floral, slightly sour flavor is more complex than the overly sweet chaunsa or Alphonso mangoes. Aficionados love the langra in part because it is almost impossible to catch at its peak — too green and your tongue will swell and itch; a few hours late and its flesh turns to mush.

But this year, the langra is nowhere to be found. The markets are empty of the sought-after mango.

On the roads that lead into Dhaka, the precious fruit lies rotting by the truckload. The reason: chemical poisoning. The langras are said to be contaminated with formalin, a strong solution of formaldehyde that is sprayed on the fruit in an effort to extend its life. The government responded by setting up checkpoints on the roads to the city.

It isn't just the mangoes. Earlier this year, the Institute of Public Health found that 47 of 50 food items tested were adulterated. Formalin is used to preserve both fruit and fish. Turmeric has been found tainted with lead. Since June 18, the police have set up mobile formalin-detection units, confiscating thousands of tons of locally produced and imported fruit.

The fruit industry is up in arms, claiming that the police are using faulty devices and crippling the industry. Last week, the fruit sellers’ association went on strike, and their produce rotted in the warehouses of the port city of Chittagong. In the weeks leading up to the month of Ramadan, the tussle has been fierce, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations taking place across Dhaka. And the langra has vanished.

The practice of spraying fruit with formalin is one problem, but more worrying is that the entire food chain is compromised — the soil itself contaminated by toxins that are almost impossible to eradicate. Bangladesh was born in the shadow of famine, and since independence in 1971, a series of government measures have put increasing pressure on farmers to keep the rice yields increasing every year. This has meant exploiting the land to its limits: intensive farming, extensive irrigation and the unchecked use of groundwater.

A result is that Bangladesh has made great strides in becoming self-sufficient in food, tripling rice yields in 40 years: In 1970, the rice crop was 0.76 tons per acre; in 2012, it was 1.9 tons. The increase is the result of using high-yield, short-duration varieties, which require the greater application of fertilizers and a huge increase in irrigation. In the last 30 years, the use of fertilizers has grown by 400 percent, and pesticides have been widely overused. And as the water table gets lower, the salinity increases and contaminants like arsenic leach into wells that provide drinking water. The land has borne the cost of our need to climb out of famine.

Dhaka’s brouhaha over contaminated fruit speaks to a growing chasm between the urban and the rural. This broken, congested city is where we have placed all our hopes for a better Bangladesh. The capital is where you will find the budding start-ups, the English-speaking college graduates, the cellphone users, the social networkers — all the engines of economic growth. And as we become more removed from the traditional modes of food production, the agricultural hinterland is being treated as nothing more than the food source for a hungry city.

The great irony here is that Bangladeshis romanticize the rural. The greatest compliment you can pay a Bangladeshi is to say she is “matir manush,” a person of the earth. The country, as the American anthropologist James Ferguson put it, provides “alternative moral images,” a counterpoint to the complexities — the allure, as well as the danger — of rapid urbanization. The rural continues to act as a repository of our fantasies about national identity; it is a favorite subject of every cultural artifact, from poetry to contemporary art. Our touchstone is Rabindranath Tagore, the great bard of the pastoral in Bengali literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But when we place checkpoints on the roads into our city, we are saying that we care only if urban citizens are poisoned; we couldn’t care less if the contaminated fruit is consumed outside of Dhaka. Ms. Spivak may have used the mango as a way to express her rootedness, but a taste for mangoes reveals a person to be among the few who can afford to consume them.

The truth is, the fruit is grown by the rural poor and fed to the urban rich. To keep the city sated with mangoes, the crop must be abundant and it must be beautiful. And for that to happen, formalin must be involved.

As Ramadan approached and the langra disappeared, the fruit sellers and the state came to an agreement. The fruit sellers would end their strike so that the population could sit down to its dates and apples after a long day of fasting; the police agreed to look into obtaining new devices to test the levels of formalin in fruit.

Unless, however, we think critically about the moral economy of food, about sustainability as well as growth, our food will remain tainted. If the rationality of urbanism — the city as the treasured engine of growth, the country merely its fodder — continues to dominate, we will merely be polishing the surface of a slowly rotting core.

First published in The International New York Times, July 2, 2014
Tahmima Anam, a writer and anthropologist, is the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Bangladesh Arms Trafficking: Residual Networks

Veronica Khangchian

In perhaps, the single biggest arms seizure since the April 2, 2004, Chittagong arms haul case where 10 truckloads of weapons had been seized, a huge arms cache was recovered by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) of Bangladesh, over several days, from the Satchari National Park in the Chunarughat Sub-District of the Habiganj District in Bangladesh, adjoining the West Tripura District in the Indian State of Tripura. Officials disclosed that they recovered 184 rocket shells (40mm) and 153 chargers for rocket launchers abandoned inside one bunker on a hillock in the reserve forest, some 130 kilometers from the capital, Dhaka, during the raid on June 3, 2014. Another six more empty bunkers were located on the same day. On June 4, the RAB found another two bunkers and recovered 38 rocket shells, four machine guns, 95 rocket chargers, 1,300 rounds of machine gun ammunition, and over 13,000 bullets of different calibres. RAB recovered more arms and ammunition, including four machine guns in a bunker on June 8, and also found oil used for cleaning firearms. Another two empty bunkers were also located. As it resumed a search operation deep into the reserve forest on the eight consecutive day, RAB made additional recoveries, including one machine gun barrel, 633 rounds of ammunition, and 54 anti-tank shells, from three newly discovered bunkers, on June 9.

The area from where the arms were recovered was once the base camp of the now-defunct Indian insurgent outfit, the Tripura-based All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). The camp was later captured by insurgents belonging to the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT). The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), with its principal theatre of operations in the Indian State of Assam, abutting Tripura, and ATTF had earlier smuggled a huge quantity of Chinese-made weapons from the Southeast Asian grey market by sea, landed them around Cox's Bazar or Chittagong, and transported these to rebel bases such as Satchari, from where arms were smuggled into India's troubled northeast.

However, some confusion prevails over the present recoveries. Indian security agencies are yet to ascertain whether these belong to any militant outfit active in India's Northeast. Media reports have speculated on the distant possibility of ULFA 'chief' Paresh Baruah asking ATTF to store the weapons in its one-time bases, and this cannot be ruled out. Reports also indicate that ATTF leader, Ranjit Debbarma (now in Tripura jail), who had close ties with Paresh Baruah, had stocked the cache in collaboration with ULFA militants. A June 4 media report suggested that the arms and ammunition belonged to ULFA leader Baruah. Information gleaned by Indian intelligence agencies from Debbarma, and provided to Bangladesh authorities, led to the recovery of the ammunition on June 3, three kilometers off the border. According to the report, arms smuggled from China by Baruah were kept in the Satchari Forest and were sent to Indian militants at opportune moments.

However, Bangladesh State Minister for Home, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, asserted that the haul was based on intelligence collected by local Bangladesh agencies. RAB Media Wing Director Habibur Rahman added that the arms and ammunition recovered in the Satchari Forest were apparently similar to those recovered in Chittagong in 2004, and to a truckload of ammunition recovered at Bogra in June 2003.  It is significant, moreover, that investigators of the Bogra ammunition haul had determined that the ammunition was bound for the Satchari Forest, and had also confirmed its linkages with NLFT and ULFA.

Earlier, a Bangladesh Court had arrived at a significant verdict in the Chittagong arms haul case, nearly 10 years after the incident. On January 30, 2014, a Chittagong District Court awarded the death penalty to 14 accused, including Motiur Rahman Nizami, Ameer (chief) of the Jamaat-e-Islami (Jel), Lutfozzaman Babar of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the then Minister of State for Home, and ULFA-I 'commander-in-chief' Paresh Baruah (in absentia), for smuggling 10 truckloads of arms into Chittagong District in 2004, during the tenure of the BNP-led Government. Investigations revealed that the weapons were manufactured in China and were being shipped to ULFA. The condemned also include former Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) Director Major General (Retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury; former Director General of National Security Intelligence (NSI) Brigadier General (Retd) Abdur Rahim; and three other NSI officials – Director (Security) Wing Commander Shahab Uddin Ahmed; Deputy Director Major (Retd) Liakat Hossain; and Field Officer Akbar Hossain Khan. Others awarded the death penalty in the case are former Additional Secretary (Industry) Nurul Amin; the then Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Ltd. (CUFL) Managing Director Mahsin Uddin Talukder; CUFL General Manager (Administration) K.M. Enamul Hoque; and three businessmen, Hafizur Rahman Hafiz, Deen Mohammad and Haji Abdus Subhan.

In the initial stages of the trial, which commenced in 2005, only some small fry, mostly labourers, truckers and trawler drivers, were implicated, leaving out the big shots as the then BNP-led Government allegedly tried to cover up the involvement of the state machinery, including its Ministers and high officials of intelligence agencies. However, after an Army-backed caretaker Government took charge on January 11, 2007, ahead of the country’s General Elections, the Court of Chittagong Metropolitan Judge ordered further investigations on February 14, 2008. In June 2011, Muniruzzaman Chowdhury, Senior Assistant Superintendent of Criminal Investigation Department, submitted two supplementary charge-sheets, accusing 11 new suspects. While Paresh Barua and former Secretary of the Industries Ministry, Nurul Amin, have been absconding ever since the recovery of the arms, the other nine are behind bars. Baruah and Amin were sentenced in absentia. The verdict of the Special Tribunal observed that the role of the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in the incident was 'mysterious', and pointed to the direct involvement of then Ministers and top military and civil officials. Judge S.M. Mojibur Rahman also argued that the smuggling of such a huge volume of weapons and ammunition was not possible without Government support, and noted, “They [the intelligence officials] were involved in the conspiracy to destroy the entire nation by putting the country’s existence at stake.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has now promised separate investigations into the role of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her party (BNP) in the Chittagong arms haul case, declaring, ‘The trial of 10 truckloads of arms haul is over. We will now probe afresh the conspiracies behind it, from where the arms came, how it was brought to Bangladesh and who had funded it." The Prime Minister added that Bangladesh had become hotbed of activities of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in August 1975.

Analysts note that the death sentence awarded to Paresh Barua will have little impact on the outfit as Barua and most of his cadres have already shifted base out of Bangladesh. Intelligence officials in Assam, however, feel that the elusive insurgent leader will be under greater pressure to come forward for talks, should Myanmar act as Bangladesh did, and evict insurgents from India's north-east, including Barua and his cadres, from its soil. The Assam Police have intelligence inputs that Barua is currently operating out of his base along the Myanmar-China border. Officials in Bangladesh argue that the death sentence would at least ensure that Baruah would not be able to enter Bangladesh without the court’s intervention.

Significantly, the verdict comes at a time when ULFA-I is facing a crisis. Sources indicate that not more than 10 hardcore members of the outfit are inside Assam, and that the group has no more than 180 cadres in camps in Myanmar. Senior leaders who were in the Mon District of Nagaland have been called back to Myanmar after the outfit awarded the death sentence to 'operational commander' Pramod Gogoi alias Partha Pratim Asom. On March 16, 2014 [the party's 'Army Day'], ULFA-I asked its members to re-strengthen the outfit, fearing that certain members had a nexus with the SFs. At least eight ULFA-I cadres, including Pramod Gogoi, were executed on the instructions of ULFA-I's 'commander-in-chief', Paresh Baruah, for 'conspiring’ with Police and Security Forces to engineer a mass surrender of cadres over the preceding four months. Seven cadres had also been executed in December 2013, while they were trying to flee the Myanmar base to surrender to the Police. 'Operational commander' Pramod Gogoi was executed on January 15, 2014 in the Mon District. ULFA-I is said to have a total of around 240 cadres at present.

Significantly, the Goalpara Police recovered a stock of ammunition and detonators from ULFA-I along the Assam-Meghalaya border in the Goalpara District on January 27, 2014. The Police disclosed that a group of ULFA-I militants had entered Hatigaon, a village under the Agia Police Station, with arms and explosive materials, which they stored inside a rubber plantation. Goalpara Superintendent of Police (SP) Nitul Gogoi stated, “We got the information that a group under the leadership of Drishti Rajkhowa brought the ammunition from Bangladesh.”
Coordination between the Meghalaya based Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), one of the biggest procurers of arms in Meghalaya, and ULFA-I, remains a concern. In the latest incident, on June 26, 2014, a militant identified as Dharma Kanta Rai, who was on ‘deputation’ from the ULFA-I to the GNLA, was killed during a rescue operation mounted by West Garo Hills Police at Darekgre near Rongmasugre village in West Garo Hills District, to free four abducted persons from the GNLA and ULFA. The abductions had been carried out on June 25 from Kantanagre village in West Garo Hills District. The deceased ULFA-I cadre was reportedly an improvised explosive device (IED) expert, used by GNLA to target Police movements.

Worryingly, media reports indicate that a large proportion of weapons and ammunition that reach the mushrooming in Meghalaya, are from the armory of insurgent groups presently engaged in peace parleys with the Government. These groups include the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the pro-talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF). According to sources, these frontline militant outfits never divulged the exact composition of their arsenal and, according to one source, “80 to 90 per cent of these arms lie unused for five to six years and just before their life span lapses, these militant groups prefer to dispose of these weapons.”

Further, despite dramatically improving relations between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), Northeast insurgent groups continue to maintain some 45 hideouts in Bangladesh, mostly belonging to ATTF and NLFT (21 camps), according to BSF Special Director General B.D. Sharma. He added, on June 20, that the insurgents could not be fully wiped out from Bangladesh soil because deployment of BGB was thin compared to requirements, and that, “They are now raising new forces and we hope that the situation would improve soon. Besides, the terrain and riverine border also come in the way of maintaining effective border vigil.” However, Mohammed Latiful Haider, Additional Director General, BGB, has denied the existence of any camps of Indian militant outfits in the country. The denial came on June 25, after the first day of a border coordination conference held between senior BSF and BGB officials at Kadamtala, at BSF North Bengal Frontier Headquarters near Siliguri, under the Darjeeling District of West Bengal.

Bangladesh has now clearly declared that it would not allow its territory to be used against India. The assurance, reiterated to Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on her first foreign visit on June 26, 2014, came as the External Affairs Minister promised to put extra energy into bilateral ties. Swaraj stated that New Delhi sought a comprehensive and equitable partnership with Bangladesh for a secure and prosperous South Asia.  With recent developments, and agreed cooperation between India and Bangladesh, a further significant improvement can be hoped for.

First published South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 12, No. 52, June 30, 2014


Veronica Khangchian is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Bangladesh War Crimes Trials Follow Evidence, Not Politics


MOHAMMAD A. ARAFAT

Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971, but at a terrible price. Pakistan didn’t just oppose Bangladeshi liberation on the battlefield. It unleashed one of the most shameful genocides of the 20th century on ethnic Bengali citizens with the help of local extremist groups. As many as three million Bengalis were killed in just nine months and more than two hundred thousand women were raped and tortured.

As is the case with war crimes elsewhere, many decades later those responsible for the massacre are finally being brought to justice. In 2009, a domestic War Crimes Tribunal (ICT-BD) was established in Bangladesh to investigate and prosecute those accused of crimes against humanity.

Bangladesh’s war crimes victims deserve justice and so do their families. The passing of time cannot wipe away the horrors of that period even though many of those responsible for mass murder have avoided justice, some by taking refuge in foreign countries. Others have even worked their way into the country’s political establishment.

The purpose of the tribunal is to set right this great wrong. Over the past year, it and a second tribunal have heard evidence against two accused ringleaders of the genocide — Motiur Rahman Nizami and Delwar Hossain Sayeedi. The evidence against both is extensive, compelling and ghastly.

If they are found guilty, they likely will hang, as the death penalty is still part of Bangladeshi law. Verdicts may come at any time.

Nizami is not just an accused killer. He is also the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, an extremist group responsible for a wave of murder and violence across Bangladesh during the past year. Its attacks have resulted in 500 deaths. Jamaat has deep roots in the region going back to its collaboration with the Pakistani military during Bangladesh’s war for independence. Back then, Jamaat launched the fearsome paramilitary group called Al-Badr, which were death squads similar to Adolph Hitler’s SS during World War II.

Jamaat, in essence, it is a domestic terror organization with a political arm. It has worked since Bangladesh’s independence to destroy the country’s pluralistic constitutional democracy and to replace it with a primitive version of Sharia law.

Nizami faces 16 counts of crimes against humanity including genocide, murder, torture, rape and property destruction, all of which are based on eyewitness accounts. As Al-Badr’s chief leader during the genocide, Nizami is accused of either personally carrying out or ordering the deaths of nearly 600 ethnic Bengalis as well as the rape and the torture of many women.

Some of the worst atrocities came at the infamous Mohammadpur Physical Training Institute in Dhaka, which was a human abattoir reminiscent of Nazi death camps.


An entire of generation of Bangladesh’s best minds were wiped out at the Institute, tribunal prosecutors charge, because Nizami and other collaborators devised a systematic plan to torture and execute professors, engineers, artists and scientists. The plan was that if Pakistan could not prevent Bangladesh’s independence, it would seek to cripple the young state in its infancy by destroying its top intellectuals.

First published in The Daily Caller, 09 May, 2014

Mohammad A. Arafat, Executive Director, Shuchinta Foundation

Thursday, May 08, 2014

New government at the Centre disturbing improved relations with Bangladesh would lose credibility internationally

SUBIR BAUMIK

Whoever forms the next government in Delhi will have to face a host of serious foreign policy issues. Repairing frosty relations with the US without surrendering to Washington and carrying forward improving relations with China, simultaneously, would be the biggest foreign policy challenge for the new government. But the immediacy of settling the line on Bangladesh cannot be underestimated. 

Former MEA secretary (east) Rajiv Sikri has observed that Bangladesh is India's most important neighbour — more important than Pakistan in many ways. India's military intervention in 1971 to create this new nation was motivated by her concern for its own insurgency-ravaged northeast. 

A friendly Bangladesh was seen as the best guarantee for the security of India's east and northeast — a region afflicted by underdevelopment and prone to ethnic separatism, which was fuelled by strong support from both Pakistan and China. 

Indira, Mujib's Legacy 
Indira Gandhi's wisdom was carried forward by Manmohan Singh when he sought to carry bilateral relations with Dhaka to a new high. With Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's daughter Sheikh Hasina in power and willing to deliver on India's security and connectivity concerns, Manmohan's 2010 Dhaka visit set the stage for a huge breakthrough. 

But Mamata Banerjee's fierce opposition scuttled the Teesta water-sharing treaty and made it difficult, if not impossible, to implement the land boundary agreement signed during Singh's visit. The security situation in India's troubled northeast is better than ever before after Bangladesh's crackdown on northeast Indian rebel groups based there. 

A Chittagong court has awarded death sentences against two former ministers, two former intelligence chiefs and Ulfa military wing supremo Paresh Barua in a 2004 arms smuggling case, underscoring the importance of a friendly regime in Dhaka for India's security. 

Delhi-Friendly Dhaka 
That the two ministers belonged to the BNP-Jamaat alliance and the arms were being smuggled with the connivance of senior functionaries of Khaleda Zia's government stands in stark contrast to the crackdown on the rebel groups after Hasina took charge. But a change of regime in Dhaka could make a lot of difference. 

It is payback time for Delhi and the next government would have to find ways to carry forward the Teesta water-sharing deal and implement the land boundary agreement. BJP hardliners like Subramaniam Swamy have gone to the absurd extent of demanding Bangladesh land for settling illegal migrants from there. 

The party will have to distance itself from such positions. Narendra Modi will have to refrain from talking about sending all Muslims in Bengal back to Bangladesh. If he takes his Rajdharma seriously, there is no way Modi can reverse Manmohan's Bangladesh policy. 

If India fails to push the Teesta and land boundary agreements, no other country would take India seriously or come forward to resolve contentious issues. The BNP is already stepping up the heat on the Teesta issue. 

On April 22-23, it organised a Long March to the Teesta barrage at Nilphamari in northern Bangladesh, blaming the Awami government for failing to clinch a deal with India. A low waterline in the Teesta is an emotive issue with farmers in northern Bangladesh. The BNP wants to corner the Awami League on this, after failing to dislodge it through an agitation leading to a poll boycott. 

Tripping Over Hard Line 
Hasina is understandably worried. A coalition of regional parties with Mamata Banerjee as an important player is her worst-case scenario because the Bengal chief minister would do all to block the Teesta and land boundary agreement. 

With Congress looking on its way out and the Left not as influential as before, her only hope is a BJP government that does not pander to its hardliners like Swamy or Assam unit chief Sarbananda Sonowal, and implements India's sovereign commitments. Failure to do that would not only undermine India's credibility but also adversely affect its most trusted ally in the region. 

In 2001, the BJP decided not to put its eggs in one basket and A B Vajpayee's national security adviser Brajesh Mishra rushed to congratulate Khaleda Zia on taking over as Prime Minister, even as Hindus were suffering one of the worst recent pogroms inflicted by BNP-Jamaat hardliners. 

If Vajpayee got Kargil for Lahore, he was rewarded by heightened Bangladesh support for northeastern insurgents, a point the 2004 Chittagong arms case drives home. 

Modi or any other BJP prime minister should not repeat that mistake because there is nothing to suggest the BNP-Jamaat combine would address India's security and connectivity concerns like Hasina has. 

It is easy to argue Indian policy should not be regime-specific but what can Delhi do if some regimes warm up to it while others remain perpetually hostile. Bangladesh should be the first priority for the next government in Delhi.


The article was first published in The Economic Times, 8 May 2014


Subir Baumik is a writer, a veteran journalist, is now senior editor with Dhaka-based bdnews24.com

Monday, March 31, 2014

Jam'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh: Latent Threat

SANCHITA BHATTACHARYA

In an attempt to re-assert itself in Bangladesh, extremists belonging to the banned Jam'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) targeted a prison van and freed three of their comrades on February 23, 2014. The prison transport was taking them from Kashimpur Prison in Gazipur District to a court in the Trishal Sub-district area of Mymenshingh District. The driver of the van, Police Constable Atiqul Islam, was killed in the attack, while two other Policemen sustained injuries. The freed terrorists were identified as Jahidul Islam alias Boma Mizan, Salauddin Salehin alias Sunny and Hafez Mahmud alias Raqib Hasan alias Rasel. All three were members of the Majlish-e-Shura(highest decision making body) of JMB. Later, on February 24, 2014, Raqib was killed in crossfire between terrorists and the Police in the Mirzapur sub-District area of the neighbouring Tangail District.

While Raqib and Salauddin were on death row, Jahidul was serving a life sentence, each for his involvement in the August 17, 2005, countrywide explosions. 459 explosions had occurred in 63 of Bangladesh's 64 Districts (excluding Munshiganj) killing three and injuring more than 100 people. On the day of the prison van attack, the three were scheduled to appear before the court in connection with another bombing at a cinema hall in Mymenshingh on December 7, 2002, in which 18 people were killed and 300 were injured.

A massive manhunt is underway for their capture and authorities have declared a bounty of BDT 200,000 for each of them. A high alert has also been issued in prisons across Bangladesh, where convicted or under-trial Islamist radicals are lodged.

Tangail Police have claimed that the present JMB 'chief' Anwar Hossain Faruk led the operation and over BDT six million was spent for the mission. On September 15, 2012, in a report handed over to the Government by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), it was stated that Bangladesh faced a significant risk of money laundering and some risk of terrorism financing. The report, inter alia, also observed that some outfits, including JMB, were active in Bangladesh and JMB cadres had publicly claimed receiving funds from Saudi Arabia.

With the exception of this latest attack, the JMB has not carried out any significant operation in the recent past. However, in 2011, JMB had threatened to kill Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, and to blow up the Chittagong District Central Jail and Court Building. A letter, claimed to have been signed by JMB terrorist, Abdul Mannan reached the Jailor, Rafiqul Quader, by post on January 5, 2011, threatening to bomb the Jail and Court building if detained JMB cadres and leaders were not released within a month. The attack never took place. The last major attack carried out by JMB was on November 14, 2005, when a JMB cadre belonging to the suicide squad exploded a bomb, killing two senior assistant judges, Shaheed Sohel Ahmed and Jagannath Pandey, and wounding three people in the District Headquarters of Jhalakathi District.

The long hiatus in activities was, most likely, primarily due to intensive security measures undertaken by the Security Forces (SFs). Most recently, on February 24, 2014, Police recovered one shotgun, one bullet and three shells from Tangail District after killing Raqib. Again, on March 14, 2014, 4.5 kilograms of explosives were recovered from a JMB hideout in Mymenshingh District, and two JMB terrorists were arrested. Earlier, on August 23, 2013, a cache of arms and ammunition, including a Submachine Gun (SMG), a Light Machine Gun (LMG), foreign made pistols, and 80 bullets, were recovered from three JMB terrorists in Thanthania of Bogra District. On, January 9, 2012, several publications of the banned organisation and some books giving instructions on how to make bombs and operate firearms like AK-47, were recovered from the Uttara area of Dhaka city, along with the arrest of JMB activist Emdadul Haque Uzzal.

According to partial data collected by Institute for Conflict Management, since 2005, a total of 521 JMB terrorists have been arrested from across Bangladesh in 260 incidents (data till March 28, 2014). Prominent among these were: former 'chief' Moulana Saidur Rahman; 'commander' of the Dhaka zone, Mohtasim Billah alias Bashir; former 'second-in-command' Mahtab Khamaru; Mohammad Asaduzzaman 'chief' of the Khulna divisional unit; Mohammad Wahab, 'head' of the Savar zone; former 'acting chief' Anwar Alam alias Nazmul alias Bhagne Shahid; Chittagong 'divisional commander’ Javed Iqbal; Mehedi Hasan alias Abeer, in charge of  the Khulna Division; Zahirul Islam alias Zahid alias Badal, in charge of the Dhaka Division (North); Dhaka ‘divisional commander’ Salahuddin alias Salehin; Sherpur ‘district commander’ Mujahidul Islam Sumon; and Emranul Haque alias Rajib 'chief' of the information technology (IT) wing.

These arrests, as well as intermittent recoveries, enormously weakened the outfit. Crucially, JMB lost its strength considerably in 2007. On March 30, 2007, six top JMB terrorists, including the outfit’s then 'chief' Abdur Rahman and ‘second-in-command’, Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai’ were executed. The other terrorists hanged were Majlish-e-Shura members Abdul Awal, Khaled Saifullah and Ataur Rahman Sunny and suicide squad member Iftekhar Hasan Al-Mamun.

JMB was founded in 1998 by Shaikh Abdur Rahman, with the objective of establishing Islamic rule in Bangladesh and to replace the current state and constitution. It opposes the existing political system and seeks to "build a society based on the Islamic model laid out in Holy Quran-Hadith." It opposes democracy, socialism as well as cultural functions, cinema halls, shrines and NGOs. A report issued in November 2011 by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point notes: “JMB's actual cadre strength is unknown. Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies identified 8,096 JMB members, of which 2,000 were allegedly part of the group's ‘suicide squad’...”

Current reports suggest that JMB still has around 1,000 active workers, mostly in the Ahl-e-Hadis belt of northern Bangladesh. Its current strategy is to re-build the outfit into a Taliban-like organisation to establish a Shariah based state.

Intelligence sources indicate that the Bangladesh Government had succeeded in arresting and trying a significant number of terrorists over the last seven years. According to media report, between 2007 and 2014, 478 JMB operatives were tried in 177 cases; of these, 51 top leaders of the outfit were sentenced to death, but are also facing trials in several other cases and accordingly, their execution may take years. Meanwhile, many of the arrested terrorists have slipped through legal loopholes and regrouped to strengthen the terrorist formation. Moreover, another approximately 270 cadres, wanted in different cases are still at large, raising a significant threat of terror attacks.

The enormity and protraction of ongoing cases and the lack of a fast-track trial process creates ample opportunities for the outfit to attempt future 'hijack' incidents to rescue their convicted operatives. Unsurprisingly, on February 24, 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed asked the Law Ministry to take effective measures to ensure speedy disposal of cases relating to terrorism.

Crucially, since the establishment of International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) on March 15, 2010, the country has been engrossed with the War Crimes Trials, even as the administration is preoccupied with protest rallies and general shutdowns orchestrated by Islamist extremists led by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and its students' wing Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) in collusion with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The rising graph of fatalities in attacks carried out by these extremists since the establishment of the ICT has become a matter of immediate concern. At least 435 people - 255 civilians, 27 SF personnel and 153 terrorists - have been killed in such violence between March 15, 2010 and March 30, 2014. This has resulted in a measure of neglect as far as other terrorist formations in the country are concerned, primarily including JMB, which also has proven links with the JeI. In July 2010, detained then 'chief' of JMB, Saidur Rahman had disclosed the JMB link with JeI.

Inspector General of Police Hassan Mahmood Khandker, on February 23, 2014, admitted that “terrorists are still active in the country,” but asserted further that “the situation is under our control now.” With desperate efforts at revival, however, the surviving extremist organisations in the country continue to pose a tangible threat to the fragile sense of control that has been established in Bangladesh, and the danger of a rash of terrorist incidents is never entirely excluded. The freeing of leadership elements of the JMB in the February 23 incidents underlines, and can only compound, this latent risk.

First published South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings
Volume 12, No. 39, March 31, 2014

Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

Friday, February 14, 2014

Are Attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh Religiously Motivated?




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

M. Sophia Newman, MPH, is a freelance writer living in Dhaka, Bangladesh. See more of her writing at msophianewman.com