Sunday, September 30, 2007

Dr. Fakhruddin’s Speech at Columbia and the “Paradox” of Bangladesh


“Bangladesh is, in many ways, a paradox that has baffled many a pundit.”
-Dr. Fakhruddin at Columbia University (28th September 2007)

THIS morning Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, Honorable Chief Adviser of Bangladesh, delivered a speech at Columbia University on an invitation by its World Leader’s Forum. At the same venue just a few days ago Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad was invited amid massive protests and gave a speech followed by questions and answers session during which Mr Mahmoud underwent a real tough time. Unlike Ahmedinajad, Dr Fakhruddin, however, was well received by the community of Columbia University, its students, teachers, staff and media. Dr. Fakhruddin’s speech was well-written and he delivered it well. Yet it might not be easy to predict, to what extent the Chief Adviser has been able to dispel the doubts about Bangladesh as “a paradox that has baffled many a pundit,” a phrase taken from his speech. Unlike what we see back home, here in US (and in much of the West) a speech or lecture by a VIP is almost always accompanied by the questions and answers (Q & A) session. But this session didn’t go as well as Dr. Fakhruddin might have predicted. And I am sure--our Chief Adviser, a Princeton alumni himself--has realized it as well.

The title of Dr. Fakhruddin’s speech was “Bangladesh’s Socioeconomic Development: Success, Challenges, and Imperatives.” During his more than half-an-hour speech which started at 11 am, Dr. Fakhruddin spoke on a wide range of issues starting from—Dr. Yunus’ micro-credit; challenges of poverty reduction; Bangladesh’s success in population control, food-production, garments industry, primary education, Non-formal education (NFE) (some may not agree with the way he promoted BRAC’s success as an NGO); migration issue— to current caretaker government’s drive against corruption and resolve to hold elections “before the end of December 2008.”

One very interesting aspect of Dr. Fakhruddin’s speech was his repeated utterance “democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for good governance.” (May be, General Moyeen has requested him to make it a point every where he goes to!) “Our democratically elected governments during the past 15 years failed to promote good governance and to protect citizens’ rights. We must accept that while democracy may take various forms and manifestations, its ultimate objective is always the same—the rule of law by the will of people. Democracy must put in place checks and balances against abuses of power and corruption,” said Dr. Fakhruddin during his speech. While many of us may agree with Dr. Fakhruddin’s statement about the failure and corruption (moral and fiscal) of country’s mainstream politicians, it’s quite dubious in my opinion that not even once did he mention that about the military’s repeated record of capture and abuse of power in Bangladesh by bypassing country’s constitution. After all, Bangladesh’s age is 35+ years, not 15 years. As for the underlined portion (Note: I did it to make my point. –J.A.) of his remarks, we only wish Mr Chief Adviser’s “various forms and manifestations” of democracy would not remind us of General Ayub’s “Basic Democracy.” The Q & A session started at around 11-35 a.m. I attended the speech on behalf of and carried a question with me which read as follows: Recently in Bangladesh, a young cartoonist Arifur Rahman was arrested and is held in prison for a cartoon which used the word, "Mohammed" and which some fundamentalist groups found objectionable. When a similar cartoon was published in the magazine of another fundamentalist group's own newspaper, no allegation of people’s "religious sentiments being hurt" or any such issue arose. We are aware that lawyers have been restricted from representing Mr Rahman and that his own family has not been allowed to meet him. This follows on the heels of the brutal torture and killing of Tribe leader and Activist Cholesh Ritchil and the arrests of hundreds of university teachers, several thousands of people with no prior criminal record. Would you please comment on this horrific state of affairs in Bangladesh with respect to individual rights and freedoms? During Q & A session I saw Dr. Austin Dacey, a long time friend of Mukto-Mona, United Nations representative of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) Trans-national and assistant editor of Free Inquiry magazine, in the queue on the other side of the hall. The moderator took first four questions from four members of the audience (there were total two lines). I was waiting for my turn. The first four questions were about Dr. Yunus & micro-credit (asked by a Bangladeshi journalist but I couldn’t quite clearly follow it); arrest of cartoonist Arifur Rahman (asked by Dr. Austin); imprisonment and harassment of university teachers, students and others and Bangladeshi refugees in India . In his response although Dr Fakhruddin maintained that his government is “respectful” (?) of the freedom of press, he clearly avoided the issue of cartoonist Arifur Rahman’s arrest. But the question regarding imprisonment and persecution of university teachers, asked by a young South Asian student, shattered the image which Dr. Fakhruddin created of his government through his sugar-coated speech. It was interesting to notice, how Dr. Fakhruddin’s face turned grumpy as the question was asked. And his answer to this particular question was old rhetoric: that it was initially a “minor” incident that was magnified later through some anti-government agents in order to destabilize the country. By the time my turn time came, Ms Clare Oh (who granted me permission to attend the event) came to me telling,” Sorry, media people are not allowed to ask any questions. Q & A session is open only to Columbia students and staff.” Surprised and deeply frustrated, I pleaded saying the first four persons who asked questions were not Columbia students themselves. Ms Clare acknowledged- that was a mistake. I obeyed the rule and came out with Dr. Austin, thanked him for raising the issue of cartoonist Arif’s arrest. If it was not for him, the American audience would not have learned about the example of this government’s policy of appeasement toward Islamic fundamentalists: imprisonment of a boy as young as 19 years only for “hurting religious sentiments” (!) of Muslims (read, Mullahs). As I was coming out, I left the copies of CFI's statement on cartoonist Arifur Rahman issued to Mukto-Mona yesterday on the table with the receptionists near the entrance. Initially I hoped to distribute them among the audience personally but I arrived there late and the speech already started.

How many more years would Bangladesh remain a ”baffling paradox?” Who might know answer to this question: The politicians, bureaucrats, the military, the public or none of them! I thought about this on my way back home. #

Jahed Ahmed is a secular activist based in New York and moderates

New York, September 28, 2007