Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bangladesh executions may force Canada not to deport Toronto suspect

Photograph by: Canwest News Service, Photo Handout
Dismissed Major Nur Chowdhury is wanted by Bangladesh for the assassination of the country's founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the killing of 27 others in a military coup in 1975

RANDY BOSWELL


THURSDAY'S EXECUTION in Bangladesh of five men convicted of killing the country's "founding father" in 1975 may force Canada to reject calls to deport a Toronto resident also has been found guilty — and sentenced to hang — for his alleged role in the assassination plot.

Bangladeshi officials have been pressuring Canada to hand over Nur Chowdhury, a former army officer accused of firing the fatal shots in the August 1975 coup that left then-president Sheik Mujibur Rahman dead, along with a dozen others caught in the crossfire at the presidential compound in the capital Dhaka.

Chowdhury and several other suspects had left Bangladesh by the time the alleged plotters — some in custody, others deemed fugitives and living abroad — were convicted of the killings and sentenced to death in 1998.

Now living in Toronto, the 59-year-old Chowdhury has been challenging a Canadian deportation order on the grounds that he will be put to death if returned to Bangladesh.

Canada, which abolished capital punishment in 1976, requires foreign nations to guarantee that any suspect extradited or deported from this country will not be subject to the death penalty for alleged crimes committed abroad.

Last month, Citizenship and Immigration Canada told Canwest News Service that Chowdhury's fate would be determined in part by whether his deportation would result in certain death or only the "mere possibility" of a hanging.

But Thursday's executions of Chowdhury's alleged co-conspirators send a clear signal about the fate that could await him if he's sent back to his home country.

Bangladeshi Law Minister Shafique Ahmed visited Canada in November to push for Chowdhury's deportation. He vowed after Thursday's executions that all of those convicted of killing Rahman will be brought to justice eventually. He also told reporters in Dhaka that the Canadian government supports Chowdhury's deportation and that "only the legal formalities are pending now" before his return to Bangladesh.

But Ahmed added that Chowdhury and the others found guilty in the assassination case — all of whom were tried in absentia more than a decade ago — will have the opportunity to appeal their convictions.

The death penalty has been a contentious issue for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government lost a Federal Court lawsuit last year over its refusal to seek clemency for Canadian-born killer Ronald Smith, now on death row in the U.S.

"In cases where the death penalty is a possibility, the government will seek assurances from the country to which the person is being returned that, if found guilty and convicted, the death penalty will not be imposed," a Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson told Canwest News Service in December.

Prevented by privacy rules from discussing details of Chowdhury's case — which the department has acknowledged involves a "complex" combination of immigration law and international diplomacy — a spokesperson explained at the time that a deportation review panel must assess "whether there is more than a mere possibility that the person will face the death penalty" before issuing a ruling.

On Thursday, CIC spokesperson Karen Shadd added that Canada's "pre-removal risk assessment" for potential deportees "evaluates whether a person would face persecution, torture, risk to life or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment" if sent to face charges in another country.

Apart from the fact that Chowdhury has already been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1975 killings, and that five executions have now been carried out in connection with the deaths, the case is further complicated by the fact Rahman's daughter is currently serving as Bangladesh's prime minister.

Sheik Hasina Wajed was visiting Europe 34 years ago when her father was assassinated and several other family members were killed in the coup d'etat. With Wajed now holding one of Bangladesh's most powerful political posts, Canada is in a particularly difficult position as it decides what to do with her father's alleged killer.

Bangladesh's high commissioner in Ottawa, Yakub Ali, said in December that Chowdhury "committed a heinous crime" and should be deported.

Chowdhury arrived in Canada in 1996 after a lengthy career as a Bangladeshi diplomat under the post-Rahman regime. He was granted visitor status on July 5, 1996, and soon after filed a refugee claim — the same year that Wajed first became prime minister of Bangladesh and vowed to bring her father's killers to justice.

Chowdhury's first refugee hearing was held in 1999, and he faced a string of defeats beginning in 2002, when his application was initially denied, court records show. He was again denied in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

But Chowdhury was not immediately sent back to Bangladesh by Canadian authorities because he faced the death penalty in his home country, according to a 2004 fax message sent by Interpol Ottawa to the Canada Border Services Agency.

The message, filed in Federal Court, said: "If there's a change of policy in Canada or Bangladesh regarding the sentencing, the subject may be extradited then." #

Syndicated by Canwest News Service©, Canada, January 28, 2010

A tale of two countries

Picture (by unknown photographer) of the founder of Bangladesh Shiekh Mujibur Rahman lying in a pool of blood in the stairwell was assassinated in a military putsch by a dozen military officers

ON AUGUST 15, 1975, the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, was killed by a group of army officers. A total of 28 people were killed that day, including Mujib’s entire family and the domestic staff. He was survived by two daughters who were on a visit abroad at that time; one of them is the current premier of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajid. After almost 35 years, Bangladesh hanged five men who were convicted for the crime. Six other convicted officers are living in exile abroad.

Mujib’s murder wreaked havoc in Bangladesh. The country was not even four years old when it had to face a military coup after the tragic incident. The perpetrators of this heinous crime were people from the Bangladeshi army who were wedded to the idea of a united Pakistan. They blamed Mujib for taking India’s help in fighting West Pakistan and virtually becoming an Indian colony in the aftermath of the fall of Dhaka in 1971. Whether Pakistan was responsible for Mujib’s assassination cannot be ascertained beyond reasonable doubt, but the military operation and the consequent atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army against the Bengalis cannot be denied. India supported the insurgency in East Pakistan, though it could be argued that given the radicalisation of Indian’s West Bengal and the Naxalite movement, the Indians did not want another radical movement on its hands in East Pakistan. When West Pakistan denied Mujib the right to form a government even after his Awami League got a majority of seats, the emergence of Bangladesh seemed all but inevitable.

There are many interesting parallels between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Two major political players of the 1970s — Zulfikar Bhutto and Sheikh Mujib — were killed by the military, be it in the form of the direct assassination of Mujib or the alleged judicial murder of Bhutto. Both countries have seen a lot of political unrest, resulting in a series of military coups. As far as democratically elected governments are concerned, a two-party system exists in both countries, resulting in a game of musical chairs between the PPP and the PML-N in Pakistan and Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League and Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in Bangladesh whenever democracy is restored. Dynastic politics, though seen to be relatively unstable, has also played an important role in the two countries. The Zia and Mujib families of Bangladesh and the Bhutto and Sharifs in Pakistan have all been extremely popular in spite of this brand of politics. Since democracy has finally been restored in Bangladesh and Pakistan after a long struggle, it is hoped that the two countries would also move away from this type of nepotistic politics sometime in the future.

Now that a violent chapter in Bangladesh’s history has been closed, Pakistan too is waiting for justice in Zulfikar Bhutto’s case. Senior Minister Raja Riaz of the PPP has demanded the reopening of Bhutto’s murder case and quoted the example of the recent execution of Mujib’s murderers. He demanded that the chief justice of Pakistan should also reopen the Bhutto case and hold the guilty accountable.

It cannot be gainsaid that democracy is vital to the people of both nations, thus we need to move forward to a credible democratic system. A strong democracy will close the doors for another military dictatorship. We no longer want to be governed by self-imposed rulers who boast of providing better opportunities for the nation, yet they only benefit themselves at the cost of public welfare. This trend must be reversed so as to make Pakistan and Bangladesh stronger, both politically and economically. #

The editorial was published in The Daily Times, Pakistan, January 30, 2010

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bitter legacy of Bangladeshi hero's killing

AP Photo/ Pavel Rahman: Supporters of country's independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman shout slogans as they carry a portrait of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the eldest daughter of the independence hero, outside the Dhaka central jail in Dhaka, Bangladesh, early January 28, 2010.

MARK DUMMET

IN THE end, in the dead of night, it all happened very quickly.

Five former soldiers, convicted of the killing of Bangladesh's independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were hanged just after midnight, hours after the Supreme Court had rejected their final appeal.

Their relatives were called in to Dhaka Central Jail for a last, rushed visit before the executions.

Later, they were allowed to collect the corpses and take them home in ambulances.

As the vehicles drove through the crowds, they were pelted with shoes, and some shouted that the bodies should not be buried on Bangladeshi soil.

Emotions are high. The supporters and surviving family members of the country's first prime minister, popularly known as Mujib, have had to wait a long time for this moment.

Life's mission
The coup leaders, a group of disillusioned, arrogant and ambitious junior officers, had him gunned down just before dawn on 15 August 1975.

They also killed his wife, three sons, two daughters-in-law and about 20 other relatives and supporters to prevent any of them from launching a counter-attack.

The military government they installed then gave them indemnity, some were later made diplomats, and the two ring leaders even formed their own political party and contested elections.

But Mujib's two daughters were out of the country at the time of the massacre and one of them, Sheikh Hasina, made it her life's mission to avenge the deaths.

She took on the reins of her father's Awami League party, and then became prime minister herself in 1996.

She had the killers living in Bangladesh arrested and put on trial. Six others remain in hiding abroad.

The men were found guilty of Mujib's murder, but Hasina lost the next elections.

And the next government, led by the party which had ultimately benefitted from the coup, did little to pursue the case.

The Awami League, still led by Hasina, returned to power in 2009, and kick-started the appeals process, which finally ended this week.

For many Bangladeshis, who remain loyal to the memory of the man who won the country's independence from Pakistan in 1971, the guilty verdict, and these executions, correct a massive injustice.

"I am satisfied that at the end of the day justice has been delivered," Anisul Haq, the state's main lawyer in the case told the BBC.

"This gives us the assurance that whatever be the crime, and whoever be the criminal, justice will prevail."

History rewritten
This case, however, is to do with a lot more than justice. It has also to do with how Bangladesh's history is remembered and who can claim legitimacy to govern it in the future.

While Mujib's killers walked free, his role as the independence leader was steadily downplayed, and he was almost written out of the history text books.

Bangladesh's other main party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, instead promoted its founder, Zia Rahman, as the genuine father of the nation.

He was number two in the army when Mujib was killed and later took over as dictator, before he too was assassinated.

His widow, Khaleda Zia, now leads the BNP.

As prime minister she, provocatively, would hold public celebrations for her birthday on 15 August, the day of Mujib's killing.

So, with the Awami League now back in power, the pendulum has swung and this time it is Zia's role which is under attack.

The text books have been rewritten and the Supreme Court ruled that no-one should contest that it was Mujib, rather than Zia, who declared independence.

Sections of the National Museum which dealt with Zia and the liberation war, in which he fought with distinction, were closed.

A mural of him at the main sports stadium was defaced, and the government announced plans to rename Dhaka's Zia International Airport.

Awami League supporters say that they are simply setting the record straight and that Mujib, who they call Bangabandhu - meaning friend of the Bengalis - is only now receiving the honours he deserved.

But this winner-takes-all approach means there is little room for a frank and honest debate of the past.

Divided culture
There is no mention, in public at least, of the fact that Mujib's government had become unpopular by the time of his death; accused of nepotism, corruption and tyranny.

Only those alive at the time remember those things, but most Bangladeshis were born afterwards and they get their history from whichever government is in power.

They certainly do not get it from the newspapers, which are close to the parties, and the best accounts of the periods are now out of print and only available in the second-hand book market.

Most Bangladeshis under the age of 40 are shockingly ill-informed about their country's past.

The coup plotters felt that Mujib had betrayed his people, but by killing him and his family they made things much worse.

The massacre plunged Bangladesh into a terrible cycle of coup and counter-coup which lasted for five years, and left the army in power until 1986.

It is partly thanks to them that Bangladesh has, to this day, such a poisonous and divided political culture.

So the execution of the five former officers might seem final, but the legacy of their appalling crimes remains very much alive today. #

First published in BBC NEWS online, 28 January 2010

Mark Dummet is with BBC News and based in Bangladesh capital Dhaka

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bloodbath on Road 32

INAM AHMED & JULFIKAR ALI MANIK

IT WAS not dawn yet. A false dawn spread its pale light across the sky. At House 677 of Road 32 in Dhanmondi, it was time to change guards while everybody was still in deep sleep: President Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, wife Begum Mujib, sons Sheikh Kamal, Sheikh Jamal and Sheikh Russell, daughters-in-law, and brother Sheikh Naser.

Bangabandhu's personal assistant AFM Mohitul Islam was on night duty, but he hit the bed around one in the morning. Suddenly the phone rang and he sleepily picked up the receiver. At the other end was the President himself. The clock was about to strike five.

“Get the police control room,” Bangabandhu ordered Mohitul. Mujib just got the message that his brother-in-law Abdur Rab Serniabat's house was under attack.

Mohitul dialled the police but the line did not get through. He then tried to reach the Ganobhaban exchange. Somebody picked up the phone at the other end but would not speak.

Mujib was impatient and asked him why he did not contact the police control room. Shakily, Mohitul gave the President the bad news -- he cannot reach anybody.

Irritated, Bangabandhu took away the telephone receiver from Mohitul.

"This is President Sheikh Mujib speaking," he thundered.

Just then a hail of bullets slammed Mohitul's office room and shattered the windowpanes.

Bangabandhu had little idea that the assassination mission had started. Little did he know he would not live to see the false dawn turning into a morning darker than night.

It was also in this false dawn that Havildar Md Quddus Sikder along with seven other guards were hoisting the national flag to the tune of bugle at Bangabandhu's residence. It was time for the guard changeover. Then he heard gunshots coming from the lakeside.

The guards immediately took position behind the boundary wall. They were baffled and were still looking for bullets to retaliate when some army men in black and khaki uniform thundered into the house through the gate.

“Put your hands up,” they shouted at the guards. The tragedy showed its first signs.

Inside Mohitul's office, Bangabandhu stepped beside a table and pulled Mohitul to the ground. Right then house help Abdul brought Bangabandhu's punjabi and glasses from the first floor. The president quickly put them on and came out into the veranda.

He shouted at the sentries.

"There have been firings all around. What are you doing?"

And off he went to the upper floor where his wife, sons Russell, Jamal and wife Parvin Jamal Rosy and brother Sheikh Abu Naser were sleeping. He did not realise this would be his last meeting with his family.

House help Rama was sleeping on the veranda in front of Bangabandhu's bedroom. It was around five in the morning. Suddenly the door opened and Begum Mujib emerged.

“Criminals have attacked Serniabat's residence,” she said.

Rama sprang up from his sleep. He ran down in panic and went outside the front gate and saw some army men advancing toward the House 677 with weapons raised and firing bullets in the air. An unknown fear gripped him. The immediate person he thought of informing about this impending peril was Sheikh Kamal, Bangabandhu's elder son.

He again entered the house and ran up to the second floor where Kamal and his wife Sultana were staying. He woke Kamal up and somehow blurted out that the army had attacked their house.

Kamal quickly put on his trousers and a shirt and ran to the ground floor. Rama took Kamal's wife Sultana to the first floor where the rest of the family was sleeping.

Rama also woke up Jamal who put on a shirt and trousers and went to his mother's room. His wife followed him there.

All hell broke loose outside as bullets pinged and whizzed around. He heard somebody groaning downstairs. Little did he know that his brother Kamal was getting mutilated by those stinging bullets.

Mohitul saw Kamal coming down to the ground floor. He stood on the veranda and roared: "Army and police members, please come with me." He was trying to locate the sentries.

Just then the killers appeared -- three to four army men in khaki and black fatigues. Automatic weapons held at waist level in front of them. They stopped right in front of Kamal. Mohitul and Nurul Islam, a police officer, stood dumbfounded behind Kamal.

Mohitul recognised Major Bazlul Huda in khaki uniform. He had met him before. Without a warning, Huda shot Kamal first in the leg. Kamal jumped to Mohitul's side by the reception room.

“Tell them I am Sheikh Mujib's son Sheikh Kamal."

“Don't shoot him,” Mohitul pleaded. “He is Sheikh Kamal. Sheikh Mujib's son.”

The killers could not care less. Guns blazed again and bullets bored through Kamal again. He fell dead.

Kamal was only the first small game for the killers. They were looking for the giant. They asked some soldiers to keep watch on Mohitul and the police officer who also suffered a bullet wound in the leg.

In heavy steps they hurried to the first floor where their main target lived. After some time, Mohitul heard the loud voice of Bangabandhu. Gunshots rang out. Mohitul did not know what was happening up there. All he could do is hope that Bangabandhu was not hurt.

But Havildar Quddus saw the terrible event playing out before his eyes.

He was detained from the moment the killers had gone inside the residence boundary. Now they ordered him to follow them to the first floor. He numbly obeyed.

As Huda and Nur stepped on the landing of the staircase, Major Mohiuddin and his soldiers appeared at the top. With them was Bangabandhu. They were coming down.

Quddus was just behind Huda and Nur. Nur said something in English that he could not understand. To this, Major Mohiuddin and his men moved to the side.

“What do you want?” Bangabandhu asked.

Nobody answered.

Suddenly, Huda and Nur pulled the triggers and bullets from their Sten guns rained down on Bangabandhu.

The president collapsed on the stairs, silently, and died and blood flowed first around the landing and then down the stairs. He was still holding his favourite tobacco pipe in one hand and a matchbox in the other.

Mohiuddin, Nur, Huda and others went down and out of the gate through the south side of the house.

For them, the mission was accomplished.

Rama saw Bangabandhu dying in a hail of bullets. He was walking behind the group of Mohiuddin who brought the president out of his room. The killing over, the army men ordered Rama to get lost.

Trembling and feeling weak in his knees, Rama slipped into the bathroom of Begum Mujib's room. Sultana Kamal, Sheikh Jamal and his wife Rosy, Sheikh Russell and Sheikh Naser were all holed up there. Naser was bleeding from his hand.

Rama told Begum Mujib that Bangabandhu had been killed.

Just then the killers returned and kept knocking on the door. The soldiers were too impatient to wait. They fired on the door. A terrifying moment of noise, cordite, flying bullets and splinters.

Then Begum Mujib softly said, "If we will have to die, let's die together." And she opened the door and begged for the lives of her family members.

The army men then herded Sheikh Naser, Sheikh Russell, Begum Mujib and Rama towards the stairs.

Begum Mujib stopped as she saw Bangabandhu lying in a pool of blood on the stairs. She broke into tears and said: "I won't go further. Kill me here."

The killers took Begum Mujib back into her room. Quddus then witnessed another most terrible thing that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Major Aziz Pasha and Risaldar Muslemuddin started firing from their Sten guns. Begum Mujib, Sheikh Jamal, his wife Rosy, and Kamal's wife Sultana stumbled on the ground with bullets in their bodies.

The killers took Naser, Russell and Rama to the ground floor and made them stand in a line beside Mohitul.

Sheikh Naser pleaded: "I am not into politics, I do business for a living."

Mohitul heard an army officer telling Naser, "We won't hurt you. Take your seat in that room."

He took Naser into the bathroom attached to Mohitul's office and opened fire.

Mohitul could hear Sheikh Naser begging for water. One of the army men winked at another, "Go and give him some water."

Then the other army person went inside the bathroom and shot Naser again.

The most horrifying thing happened next. The killers went up and came down with Russell, Bangabandhu's 10-year-old son -- bewildered and devastated. He first held Rama close and then Mohitul.

"Bhaiya (brother), Will they kill me too?" the child asked.

“No Bhaiya, they won't kill you," Mohitul said. He had no idea what was next.

An army man in khaki uniform wrenched Russell away from Mohitul. The child wanted to go back to his mother.

“Take him to his mother,” Major Pasha ordered an army havildar.

The havildar with a mischievous smile held Russell by his hand and took him to the first floor. Russell was wailing. Then came another burst of gunshots.

A little later, Major Farooq Rahman met Bazlul Huda at the gate.

"All are finished," Huda announced. #

First published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh, January 28, 2010

Inam Ahmed & Julfikar Ali Manik are staffers of The Daily Star

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

India's Opening With Bangladesh

PHILIP BOWRING

INDIA HAS for so long been obsessed with the security of its north-western frontier and relations with Pakistan that issues on its eastern borders have been neglected. But various events are forcing New Delhi to focus on some interrelated security challenges in the east and northeast. So the four-day state visit to India by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed of Bangladesh that began Sunday has an importance far beyond the ceremonial.

While geography alone makes Bangladesh highly dependent on its giant neighbor, India is beginning to appreciate that bullying Bangladesh makes other problems worse. In reality, both nations have security and economic issues that require cooperation.

Three particular issues have brought home India’s eastern vulnerability. The first is China’s newly confrontational stance over its claims to much of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. China regards these areas as part of Tibet. That in turn links to the second issue: separatism in some of India’s seven northeast states. The insurgency in the largest state in the region, Assam, may now be at least as troublesome as that in Kashmir. China does not at present appear to be helping the insurgents but clearly has the potential to do so.

One cause of these tensions is the third issue: the relative lack of development in the region, including nearby eastern Indian states such as Bihar and Jharkhand, which has spawned the growing insurgency. The Naxalites, radical communists who have informal links to the Maoists recently in government in Nepal, have become a major threat to the state, killing officials and disrupting rail traffic. Bangladesh may be a poster state of poverty but it has been outshining neighboring Indian states in social development.

The election of Sheikh Hasina last year has opened an opportunity for cooperation with India to which Delhi needs to respond generously. Her Awami League has long been seen as less suspicious of India than the rival Bangladesh National Party of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. She has bought some Indian good will by arresting and handing over to India the chairman of the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam. Her government is also seen as less likely to turn a blind eye to Islamic militants. But for her own credibility she must get something meaningful in return if good relations with India are to be a vote winner at home.

Top of the Bangladesh wish list is a reduction in trade barriers that contribute to a 10-to-1 trade advantage in India’s favor. But Bangladesh in turn needs to be more open to Indian investment generally and development of its gas industry in particular, which have long been stymied by nationalism and corruption. Likewise both countries have long hurt each other by impeding transit rights and thwarting the full use of rail and river links that date back to British rule. India also has been frustrated by Dhaka’s unwillingness to be a conduit for piping Myanmar gas to energy-short eastern India.

Indeed, oil and gas exploration in the Bay of Bengal is frustrated by lack of agreed boundaries between Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.

Even more fundamental issues need to be addressed. Bangladesh’s biggest security issue is water. It has legitimate worries about Indian plans for dam building on shared water resources that are the lifeblood of all of Bangladesh and much of northern India. Can the two cooperate for mutual benefit — and to oppose any plans China, the source of many of these rivers, has to divert them for its own use?

Indeed, given the depth of Chinese influence in Myanmar and its fostering of relations with Bangladesh, it is surprising that India has not made more effort to treat its neighbor with respect, not condescension. But a new chapter in relations between two nations that share so much culture, language and history could be opening if Delhi responds to Sheikh Hasina’s visit with the generosity and leadership that should be expected of the regional power. #

First published in The New York Times, USA, January 12, 2010

Philip Bowring is Op-Ed Contributor of The New York Times

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bangladesh resets equation with India

Image Credit: Dwyn Ronald, Gulf News
As the governments of Bangladesh and India strengthen their relationship with several new agreements, India and Pakistan have drifted further apart

KULDIP NAYAR

IT WAS a welcome coincidence that both Bangladesh and Pakistan figured in the discussions at New Delhi this week as Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina began her first official visit after a landslide victory last year.

The search for peace in the subcontinent is at the root of these discussions. But as the governments of Bangladesh and India strengthen their relationship with several new agreements, India and Pakistan have drifted further apart.

The Manmohan Singh government was at pains to accommodate Sheikh Hasina. On the other hand, it hardly took notice of the three-day Indo-Pakistan meeting right under its nose.

The media, generally influenced by the establishment, was slightly better. That shows the difference between official and non-official initiatives, notwithstanding the fact that both represent the peoples' aspirations. In third world countries, nothing moves without an official nod.

Sheikh Hasina's visit has come at a time when she has assessed her country's needs and India's capacity to meet them. She did not demand anything but it was apparent that if her government could not lift her people economically, she would slide lower on the popularity graph.

Her popularity is already down from 83 per cent to 67 per cent, according to a recent survey by a Bengali daily at Dhaka.

Sheikh Hasina's biggest contribution to Bangladesh is the strength she has given to democratic and secular forces — the plank on which she fought election and won three-fourths of the seats in Jatiya Sangsad (parliament).

India too has, in turn, gained. Lessening of fundamentalism in a neighbouring country helps. India's Prime Minister Singh has in Sheikh Hasina, a prime minister who will not allow its soil to be used by anti-India groups.

When Dhaka handed ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) leaders over to Delhi, it opened a new chapter in bilateral relations. In fact, during the recent discussions, Sheikh Hasina made it clear that no terrorists would be allowed to function from her country.

This changed the equation completely.

Even before Sheikh Hasina could list her demands, Singh reportedly said that she did not have to ask for anything. Whatever Bangladesh needed, India would do its best to provide.

The proposed $600 million (Dh2.20 billion) credit to Dhaka was doubled. India gave an undertaking that it would not take any step on the controversial Tipaimukh Hydro Electric project without Bangladesh‘s consent. Nor did New Delhi ask for any transit facility, a sensitive issue with Dhaka.

Working in tandem
The resolve to eliminate terrorism is what the region wants — from Kabul to Dhaka. Islamabad would like New Delhi to join the anti-Taliban operation, but after the Mumbai carnage, such a move is out of the question.

It will serve everybody's interests if Singh and Sheikh Hasina integrate their efforts with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

During the Indo-Pakistan meeting, the Pakistani speakers were frank enough to admit the havoc the terrorists were creating in their country.

Islamabad needs to be retrieved. It does not mean that India will be less anxious in having Pakistan pursue its effort to book the perpetrators of 26/11. But it does mean that New Delhi's frozen attitude should melt so that the two countries can meet across the table once again.

Disappointment in Pakistan over the ‘no' to talks should not make President Asif Ali Zardari indulge in jingoism and say that they would wage a thousand-year war against India. He may want to bolster himself politically. But his rhetoric may make him more dependable on the army which has been the biggest factor in Pakistan.

It is strange that Islamabad has not yet understood how the system works in New Delhi. Otherwise, Pakistan would not have overreacted to the statement by Chief of the Army Staff General Deepak Kapoor that India may have to prepare for war against China and Pakistan. However irresponsible the statement, it does not pose any threat to Pakistan. Defence Minister A.K. Anthony scoffed at Islamabad's reaction.

General Kapoor is not General Pervez Kiyani. The systems in the two countries are different. General Kapoor or the army has no say in India's political affairs. He is due to retire. The Indian government will soon name his successor.

Making a mountain out of a molehill gives the impression as if Pakistan is trying to score a point, however weak. What all this boils down to is the unending mistrust. Until it is replaced by confidence, the two sides have to see that they do not present an exaggerated picture, indulge in accusations or imagine something which has no basis.

If all these countries were to pool their resources, peace is assured in south Asia. They do not have to give up their identity or sovereignty. They have to only shed distrust in the interest of common good. #

First published in The Gulf News, Dubai, UAE, January 16, 2010

Kuldip Nayar is a journalist, columnist, former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A new start for India and Bangladesh?

Strengthening ties: Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed being received by UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi at her residence in New Delhi
The Bangladeshi prime minister's visit to India won only vague promises. It is time to demand a more equal relationship

ASIF SALEH

THERE WAS a sense of history at the Bangladeshi prime minister's office on Saturday. Sheikh Hasina, in a show of strength, flanked by the top members of her government, was addressing the country's editors and reporters. In an unprecedented White House-style press conference broadcast live on all the TV channels and radio stations, her mood was combative. She was defending the agreements she had signed in India the previous week. "Are we to let our resources remain unused forever?... The deals will fight South Asia's common enemy – poverty," she said, trying to defuse opposition to the deals.

Suddenly India is all over the airwaves in Bangladesh. (The visiting Indian cricket captain has created his own controversy by calling the Bangladesh cricket team "ordinary".) Civil society, too, has rounded up experts for discussions on the prime minister's visit to India. Talkshows and blogs are deluged with comments, with listeners calling in. But if you switch to the Indian media, the trip gets very limited airtime and print space. Even during the visit, the news hardly made the front pages. This difference in media treatment underlines the relationship between India and Bangladesh. And this is reflected on the policy level – India reacts with indifference and apathy when Bangladesh reaches out, and concerns and accusations when Bangladesh plays tough.

In spite of this lack of attention in India, how will the people of Bangladesh view this trip and the ensuing relationship? If it translates into more investment and economic activity, and ultimately jobs and income, that will surely be welcomed. But if it does nothing to remove the threats of upstream dam projects to local rivers and ecosystems or to stop the killing of civilians by Indian paramilitary forces at the border, while the trade imbalance between the country continues in India's favour and the security rhetoric continues to reflect Indian perceptions and prejudices and not Bangladeshi reality, there will be a heavy political price to pay.

Can India afford to take that chance? Hardly. Over her first year in power, Hasina has gone out of her way, taking enormous political risks, to address India's concern on security matters. Her party won three-quarters of the parliamentary seats, but she has already spent some of this political capital on India. And yet, if this visit was any indication, India has not reciprocated. There are genuine concerns in Bangladesh about the impact of India's proposed Tipaimukh Dam, due to be built within 100km of Bangladesh's north-eastern border, and the sharing of water from the Teesta river. Indian positions on either issue have hardly changed. The developments in the coming months will be crucial to assess if this is indeed a new start to Indo-Bangla relationship, as some analysts have argued.

What are the chances that India will move from its entrenched position on these issues? More importantly, is there any basis for Bangladesh expecting the relationship's dynamics to change dramatically? Is it enough to trust the Indian government when it says no harm will come to Bangladesh? Has this worked in any unequal relationships between states?

Of course it hasn't. And it won't either in Bangladesh's case unless it applies more leverage at the negotiation table. For that to happen, Bangladesh's policymakers need to start thinking of the "China card". Bangladesh has recently attracted investment attention from China's private sector. It wouldn't hurt to extend the relationship on the state level to advance some key strategic objectives. Both Pakistan and Sri Lanka have recently built sea ports using China's assistance. Bangladesh too can explore options on building deep sea ports using China's assistance.

As a friend of mine, a professor of international political economy, put it: "If India wants to treat Bangladeshis as equals I am all for integration. If we are going to be fenced in like rats (or Palestinians) in a context where India will clearly still use our territory as its market and for access routes (exactly like Israel), as a sovereign country we should explore how to change the balance of power in the region."

It may be time for us to achieve far more concrete promises addressing our concerns from future India visits by our PMs. As I write this, India, the top cricketing nation, is playing Bangladesh, the bottom-ranked but lately resurgent test-playing country. Against the backdrop of the comment by the Indian captain that Bangladesh is an ordinary side, the dismal performance of their overconfident side on the first day will seem particularly sweet to Bangladeshis. We can only hope the regional importance of Bangladesh is not similarly underestimated. #

First published in The Guardian, January 19, 2010

Asif Saleh is a writer, technologist and a social entrepreneur. After spending 12 years at Goldman, Sachs, he left the corporate life and now manages Drishtipat, a social development organization, focused on Bangladesh. He also blogs Unheard Voice

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A new chapter in ties with Dhaka

Editorial: The Asian Age, India

THE TRUE potential of the relationship between India and Bangladesh has never been realised in spite of this country’s historic role in aiding the process of Bangladesh’s birth, and the existence of a significant section of opinion in that country that embraces the idea of democratic development and a secular polity. Sheikh Hasina Wajed has been in power before at the head of the Awami League but she and her party have always had their hands full battling tendencies that were not well disposed toward cutting the umbilical card with Pakistan dominated by the mullah-military complex. Now on a visit to India, the Bangladesh leader has promised to take her country away from seeds that give rise to extremism and terrorism, and move toward an era of democratic change underpinned by the notions of peace and justice. These were some of the ideas Sheikh Hasina expressed in her acceptance speech on being conferred the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development in New Delhi on Tuesday after she signed a slew of agreements and MOUs with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the previous day.

The Bangladesh leader’s personal commitment to the high ideals she alluded to were never in doubt. But the ground situation in her country did not allow her to attain her goals. The difference now is that Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League-led alliance pulled off a spectacular victory a year back, winning 80 per cent of the seats it contested. The rival BNP-led alliance, which includes the extremist Jamiat-e-Islami, was routed. No less important, the December 2008 election was unprecedented in being completely peaceful, with 85 per cent of the electorate voting. No Bangladesh leader has won an election with such goodwill. Therefore, this time around, Sheikh Hasina has a far freer hand in shaping her country’s domestic and foreign policy. She has promised to take Bangladesh’s relations with India to a new level. Dr Manmohan Singh too has noted that Sheikh Hasina’s visit opened a new chapter in ties that would lead to "complete unity of heart and mind". Such sympathetic articulation on both sides doubtless promises to give a big push to a relationship that had been for the most part unproductive. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. This essentially means that the visiting Prime Minister and her party will have to handle domestic affairs wisely, firmly, and fairly if its foreign policy, particularly concerning India, is to take off in the anticipated direction.

New Delhi has agreed to offer Dhaka a billion-dollar line of credit for infrastructure development, the best it has given any country before. This gives us an idea of the degree of investment India is prepared to make to raise the level of its relationship with its eastern neighbour. Dhaka has also been offered access to Nepal and Bhutan through Indian territory. Mutually beneficial arrangements in the power sector are in the offing. India has cancelled plans to make a dam on its side that Bangladesh was apprehensive about. On its part, Dhaka has offered India complete support in ensuring that terrorism against this country is not mounted from its soil. This means a great deal to us. If the promised agreements can be made to work on the ground, a new era would have arrived in the overall dynamics of South Asia. The Indian and Bangladesh economies have significant complementarities. The two countries can potentially cooperate to establish a firm base in transacting business relations with Southeast Asia and beyond to their mutual benefit. The key is to build a strong domestic constituency that would endorse the spirit of the proposed shift in the bilateral relationship. #

First published in The Asian Age, January 13, 2010

Celebration pact and tinkering with the thorniest issues

Photo: Visiting Bangladesh Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina calls upon Indian President Pratibha Patil at Delhi recently
Editorial: The Statesman, Kolkata, India

FOR All the euphoria of the chattering class in the build-up to Sheikh Hasina’s visit, Monday’s agreement reaffirms that Dhaka has more to celebrate than Delhi. Of profound import to Bangladesh is the agreement’s decidedly economic content. In terms of foreign policy, the visit has been significant chiefly because for the first time in 30 years, India played host to a seemingly democratic and relatively secular dispensation from across the border, recalling memories of the concerted struggle for liberation. For all that, the thorniest issues of cross-border militant operations and the illegal influx ~ couched in the diplomatic terminology of international terrorism ~ have merely been tinkered with through a statement of combative intent. The details have been left delightfully vague, arguably because the specifics didn’t figure at the Manmohan Singh-Hasina high table. The latter’s assurance that the Awami League government will not allow Bangladesh to be used for terror against India is merely an iteration of policy, as often as not articulated by the BNP as well. True, there has been some progress in recent weeks, but the matter calls for a more robust enunciation of the agenda. The decision to transfer the sentenced offenders falls short of an extradition treaty which is essential if Bangladesh is to hand over more fugitives. Hopefully, whatever has been achieved ought to lead to the handing over of Anup Chetia, the ULFA leader who was jailed during the Khaleda dispensation.

While the Indian outpouring has been generally emotional, Bangladesh has much to celebrate over the tangible content of the agreement. Pre-eminently the $1 billion credit from India to streamline the railway network, buy rolling stock, rehabilitate the railway workshop in Saidpur, dredge rivers and buy buses. The package is geared to effect a dramatic revamp of the infrastructure, covering the Akhaura-Agartala rail connection and the supply of 250MW of electricity each day, if through a power-starved eastern India. Equally, the terms of engagement are no less critical; unmistakable is the unstated favoured-nation premise. Never has India advanced so huge a one-time assistance to any country; similar aid to Afghanistan was staggered through several phases. And the provision to convert at least 35 per cent of the credit to a grant implies that the amount need not be returned. The bout of bonanza, almost India’s celebration of the Awami League’s return, is unparalleled.

In comparison, the package for India must seem to be small beer, notably the boost to maritime trade through the access that has been granted to the ports in Chittagong, Ashuganj and Mongla. The joint commemoration of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary in 2011 will appeal to the middle class Bengali psyche. At the end of the day, Sonar Bangla must effect a dramatic change in the ground realities along the border, and literally so. #

First published in The Statesman, India, January 12, 2010

A new Indo-Bangla chapter

NITISH SENGUPTA

THE VISIT of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed is a landmark in the history of the relationship between India and Bangladesh. The two countries are expected to reach several agreements of wide-ranging consequence — economic and political.

The first decade of the present century was, in many respects, a sort of nightmare for India as far as relations with Bangladesh are concerned. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance, which ruled Bangladesh between 2001 and 2006, marked by far the worst period in Indo-Bangla relations. Bangladesh became a sanctuary for secessionist groups from India’s Northeast, including the United Liberation Front of Asom, and a centre for Pakistani jihadi elements. The economic relationship between the two countries also plummeted except informal cross-border trade.

Repeated Indian requests to the government of Bangladesh to control the terrorist groups operating from their soil failed. Though Bangladesh’s Islamic fundamentalist parties did not have much strength on their own, collectively they provided support to the Khaleda Zia government and extracted a very heavy price in the form of support for its anti-India and anti-minorities approach.

All this has now become a thing of the past. The return of the Awami League government with an overwhelming mandate shows that the younger generation in Bangladesh wants to make a complete break from their recent past. Now it is India’s turn to reciprocate. One irritant in the relationship between the two countries was removed during Ms Wajed’s earlier government when she concluded the Farraka water-sharing agreement with India. She also showed remarkable courage in concluding peace with the secessionist elements in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But she had a slender majority and, therefore, her capacity for a more drastic reprisal was limited.

Now, endorsed with an overwhelming mandate, she is in a position to allay India’s fears and apprehensions. India should, in turn, reciprocate. There is no reason, for example, why India cannot declare its market open to goods from Bangladesh without any customs duty or, at best, with a very marginal flat rate of customs duty of two per cent. Traditionally, the mandarins from South Block produce a negative list of products that cannot be imported. But taking an overall view, this negative list does not appear to have much economic justification. The total quantity of products that Bangladesh can export to India would always be small and would not have much impact on the Indian market.

Then there is the question of migration of people from Bangladesh for work. This phenomenon is not unique to the subcontinent. Bangladesh will always send migrant labourers to work in India. So long as they travel with work permits issued by the Government of India, the human traffic can be regulated. It is our failure to create a system of work permits for limited duration that is encouraging illegal migration.

Over the years, the issue of transit permits for Indian goods to be carried through Bangladesh to the Northeast has been a matter of concern. Here again, it is not widely known that there is already a protocol between India and Bangladesh permitting goods traffic through the waterways. If the National Inland Water Transport Corporation is converted into a joint-venture with Bangladesh, a part of the problem can be solved. Once inland navigation through Bangladesh is permitted, the cost of carrying bulk goods like cement, fertilisers, tea, jute and foodgrains will come down by 50 per cent. Then we will have no reason to insist on road traffic through Bangladesh.

The problems of fixing the maritime boundary between the two countries and sharing offshore gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal are also very important and can be sorted out with goodwill and friendly cooperation. Profits can be shared by shareholders from both the countries and by the two countries as well.

Finally, Indian policymakers must shed their distrust in relation to Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina’s government has shown a lot of trust in addressing India’s concerns. If some people are worried about the economic cost of dropping one or two items from the negative list, they should recall the last five years.

The anxiety caused by the Khaleda Zia government during 2001-2006 has to be taken into account and quantified — the massive cost of maintaining the Border Security Force and intelligence agencies to deal with Bangladesh-based jihadis can’t be ignored.

It is a pity that because of our internal problems, Ms Wajed is unable to visit either Kolkata or Santiniketan, something she strongly wished to do. The absence of an appointed governor in West Bengal and the tense situation in Santiniketan have caused this problem. Her visit to Kolkata would have been historic and she would have received a very warm welcome. Unfortunately this is not to be.

Bangladesh and India should enter into a new phase of mutual confidence and cooperation. Dhaka has already given the right signals. These should be reciprocated with generosity. All misapprehensions in Bangladesh, such as Tipaimukh multi-purpose hydel project on the Barak river, should be dispelled. Bangladesh should be told that Tipaimukh is only an electricity generation project and will not take away any water from the river. Bangladesh’s apprehensions about Teesta barrage should also be dealt with. There can be many power-sharing and water-sharing agreements. The use of India’s Chittagong Port should begin a new phase of cooperation and prosperity.

Together, Bangladesh and India should lay the foundation of a prosperous South Asia Free Trade Area. That would be a fitting tribute to the memory of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman who lived for mutual cooperation between the two nations. #

First published in The Asian Age, India, January 10, 2010

Nitish Sengupta, an academic and an author, is a former Member of Parliament and a former secretary to the Government of India

Future of India-Bangladesh relations

Photo PTI: An economically strong, secular and democratic Bangladesh is crucial for New Delhi and the rest of the region

HAROON HABIB


THE DOMESTIC context in Bangladesh of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s major visit to India.

Sheikh Hasina, who started her second term as Prime Minister of Bangladesh on January 6, 2009, is due to visit India from Sunday. This is her first visit to New Delhi during this term, and it is expected to be a significant one.

When Ms Hasina became Prime Minister in 1996 (she held office till 2001), her Awami League had a thin majority in Parliament, and her government had many limitations. She came to power after two decades that followed the bloody changeover of 1975. Despite those limitations, her government took some remarkable steps vis-a-vis India. Overall, it tried to reverse certain post-1975 political trends and to rejuvenate the pro-liberation spirit that was needed badly for a secular polity in a country that had seen the planned rehabilitation of the so-called 1947 spirit by a set of military and pseudo-democratic rulers.

During that tenure, the Awami League-led government signed the historic Ganga Water Treaty. It also paved the way for the return to India of thousands of Chakma refugees from Tripura with the signing of a landmark accord that ended decades of tribal insurgency in the border region. Then, it sent a firm signal to insurgents operating all across northeastern India, many of whom, as claimed by India, enjoyed sanctuary in Bangladesh. These steps were not easy to take, and indeed constituted a test of courage and conviction for the government.

This time, too, the government of the grand alliance led by the daughter of the slain founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is not without its limitations. But its leadership is now more experienced. It won a landslide in the December 2008 elections, and secured a two-thirds-plus majority in Parliament. This enabled Ms Hasina’s government to amend the Constitution and bring about certain changes that it felt were needed to initiate a new journey that Bangladesh needs to undertake in order to get back on the right track.

Having achieved independence from Pakistan in the aftermath and as a consequence of the devastating war of 1971, Bangladesh did not get adequate time to consolidate itself and put itself on a firm democratic footing. India helped the Bengali freedom fighters to a great extent, and finally formed a joint military command after Pakistan attacked its soil. But that remarkable and historic achievement failed to deliver the expected outcome fully, probably due to a certain lack of alertness, a premature sense of euphoria or a misreading of the feelings of the forces that were defeated.

At the high-level meetings between Bangladesh and India over the next few days, particularly of the heads of governments, important bilateral aspects that will have a historical resonance are bound to come up. But the domestic context of the visit is unlikely to remain unnoticed.

Bangladesh is now ruled by secular democratic forces, known as the ‘pro-liberation’ forces. But the forces which opposed independence from Pakistan and which developed a solid economic foundation and organisational base over the past few decades, have now become quite alert and aggressive. They have been quickly joined by some elements — who were direct beneficiaries of the 1975 changeover and who ruled the country for 30 out of the 39 years of its political existence — and have unleashed a propaganda war.

The fundamentalists and the local versions of the Taliban do not want Bangladesh to remain friendly with India; to them India is “the enemy state.” But why is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is but a mixture of soft Islamists, fundamentalists and former communists, singing a similar tune?

When the national media projected the Prime Minister’s visit to India optimistically — as an opportunity to begin a new era and resolve certain outstanding issues — Begum Khaleda Zia, BNP chairperson and chief of the four-party rightist alliance in which the Jamaat-e-Islami plays a pivotal role, posed an open challenge to the government. She stated publicly that should Ms. Hasina conclude an honourable deal with India, she would be welcomed with garlands on her return. If, on the other hand, she failed to protect the ‘national interest,’ her path would be strewn with thorns.

This is an open challenge posed before the one-year-old government, which has ensured that the war criminals found guilty for their role during the liberation war against Pakistan face trial. The Supreme Court recently upheld the death sentence to the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

There are several issues on the table in the context of Ms Hasina’s visit. It is all right to analyse them ahead of the summit, but it will be wrong to give the impression that any lack of progress in solving them in a single visit will constitute failure. To imply that even a meeting with the Indian leader could somehow lead to an eventual surrender of national interests is equally fallacious.

Post-1975, the definition of patriotism changed in Bangladesh. Originally, it was the Bengali freedom fighters and their local collaborators on the warfront who were called “patriots” along with the vast majority of people who helped to fight the war against the Pakistan Army. But the history of the independence struggle was re-written, rather distorted, by a set of military and pseudo-democratic rulers. Fortunately, Bangladesh now looks forward to removing the distortions as a younger generation of Bangladeshis seeks to know what really happened.

The Khaleda Zia-led combine, which will soon be under the command of her controversial son Tareq Rahman — he is now in London and faces multiple corruption charges — did not perhaps notice the changed national mood. As Ms Hasina prepared to go to New Delhi, the Leader of the Opposition chose to question the patriotism of even the people who belong to the ruling party, forgetting that patriotism is not the monopoly of any single group or party.

Whenever such a top-level meeting takes place, the mainstream media delve into history and recall India’s support to the cause of Bangladesh’s nationhood. It is yet another irritant Begum Zia and her alliance have been destined to suffer. It is a matter of history that India sheltered 100 million refugees from the former East Pakistan when the Pakistan Army began a genocidal war against unarmed civilians, and also extended significant support to Bangladesh’s war that finally culminated in the creation of a new country.

However, the historic relationship did not develop as it was meant to. Bangladesh faced its first shock in August 1975 with the assassination of Mujibur Rahman. With state power vested in the military and pseudo-democratic rulers for two decades, Bangladesh found a new ethos that practically negated the secular spirit of 1971. India, too, underwent transformation on multiple fronts. Therefore, while history provides a vital thrust, India and Bangladesh must practically resolve the issues that have confronted them, and seek to put their relations on a solid foundation.

Since India is a big neighbour, some psychological impact on both sides of the border is inevitable. When the post-1975 situation influenced a section of Bangladeshis to look back at the “spirit of 1947,” which actually ran counter to the spirit of the war of liberation, Dhaka-New Delhi relations faced many obstacles. While this was against the will of many Bangladeshis, the protagonists of the “spirit of 1947” did succeed in influencing a section that would strongly argue that the stumbling blocks were mainly India’s “intransigence, chauvinism and obduracy.”

Bangladesh covers a relatively small territory. But it has enormous potential and considerable strategic significance. Close relations with India to resolve all major irritants should be a key requirement for it to make a new beginning. Despite having been in office only for a year and despite the fact that the adversaries of the pro-liberation spirit are more powerful than ever before, the Sheikh Hasina government has shown considerable courage and conviction to free its soil from anti-India activity. Many would, therefore, hope for suitable reciprocal gestures to strengthen the polity.

An economically strong, secular and democratic Bangladesh is crucial for New Delhi and the rest of the region. A democratic and secular India, and Bangladesh, that has started its renewed march towards a stable democratic polity despite the muscle flexing by some extremists, should work together for a stable South Asia. #

First published in The Hindu,

Haroon Habib is a journalist, was involved in Bangladesh’s freedom struggle, can be reached at: hh1971@gmail.com

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Bangladesh, Pakistan and India through a lens

Photograph Rashid Talukder: The dismembered head of an intellectual killed on 14 December 1971 by local collaborators of the Pakistani army, Bangladesh

KAMILA SHAMSIE

SO MUCH for the post-national, globalised world. Looking through hundreds of photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which will go on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London this month, I find myself unable to follow the curators' lead. Wisely, they have chosen to group the images thematically, rather than according to nationality; but almost immediately I am looking hungrily for Pakistan (my homeland), largely ignoring India, and pausing longest at pictures of Bangladesh from 1971, the year in which it ceased to be East Pakistan.

It isn't that I don't find anything of interest in India or in photographs of it. But of the three nations, India has always been the most visually reproduced; many of the photographs taken there feel over-familiar. This is not the over-familiarity of a scene I've personally witnessed or inhabited: it is the compositions or the subject matter or sometimes the photograph itself that I feel I've seen time and time again. There is Gandhi stepping out of that train; there are the Mumbai boys leaping into a body of water on a hot day; there is the movie poster in the style of movie posters.

It is something of a surprise to find how intent I am on tracking down pictures of Pakistan. I have spent the greater part of my life there and will be returning shortly, but neither homesickness nor estrangement lie behind my wanting to see more. It is the role of photographs themselves in Pakistan that may serve as explanation. There is still very little appreciation of photo-graphy as an art form, so pictures tend to fall into three categories: private celebrations, news – and cricket. I have seen countless pictures of weddings, of burning buses, of a fast bowler winding his arm over his shoulder at the end of his run-up. Life's more quotidian details occur away from the lens, and so feel unacknowledged. Pakistan is a nation tremendously poor at acknowledging what goes on when it comes to individual lives, and bad at acknowledging the sweep of its own history. Great areas of the past and present remain away from the nation's gaze.

If there is one period in history from which Pakistan most adamantly averts its eyes, it is 1971. That year, Pakistan ceased to be a nation with two wings, and the state of Bangladesh came into being. And so I turn to the Bangladeshi photographers in order to fix my gaze on that blood-soaked epoch. I don't even realise I'm doing this, at first. I think I'm looking at a man's head, cast in marble; the sculpture is cheek-down amid a cluster of stones, almost camouflaged by them. Then I read the caption: "Dismembered head of an intellectual killed 14 December 1971 by local collaborators of Pakistani army. Bangladesh." It is extraordinarily eerie, and sad. There are other pictures of that period, too. Many, if not all, will probably be familiar to anyone from Bangladesh; none are part of Pakistan's consciousness.

Pakistan's erasure of its own muddled history is the subject of Bani Abidi's witty series of photographs, The Ghost of Mohammad Bin Qasim. In the nation's attempt to create an official history, which focuses on Muslims in the subcontinent (rather than Pakistan's geographical boundaries), the Arab general Bin Qasim (712 AD) was lauded for being the first Muslim to successfully lead a military campaign in India – even though he did little to consolidate his position. In Abidi's photographs, a man in Arab dress is shot at different locations in Karachi, including the mausoleum of the nation's secular founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The man is clearly Photoshopped in, deliberately so: he represents the attempt to graft a false history on to Pakistan, linking it to the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.

While Abidi's work asks the viewer to engage with history and politics, there are others that draw a more visceral response. Mohammad Arif Ali's photograph of rain in Lahore captures the size and force of raindrops during the monsoons; the vivid colours at the edge of the frame also evoke how startlingly rinsed of dust the whole world looks. The boy darting out into the downpour, ahead of a line of traffic, his shalwar kameez plastered to his skin, is both lord of the world and a tiny creature, in danger of being crushed. It brings a familiar world vividly to mind. And yet, of course, exactly this scene could be played out – and photographed – in Delhi or Dhaka. It is foolish of me to think of it as quintessentially Pakistani. Sometimes these countries are three; sometimes one: the movement between three distinct nations and one region is impossible to pin down.

Away from the pictures of 1971, the Bangladeshi images are both unfamiliar (Munem Wasif's picture of a Burmese worker struggling through bushes in Bangladesh) and familiar: notably, Abir Abdullah's Women Working in Old Dhaka, which shows two women making chapatis together, though their positioning suggests distance rather than camaraderie. Is their lack of proximity a consequence of class or personality?

I turn back to the pictures of India and am almost immediately struck by Ram Rahman's Young Wrestlers, Delhi: two boys, each wearing a pair of briefs. It is mystifying that I didn't notice before how one of them stares assertively at the camera, his muscles relaxed, in the most casual of poses. The other's eyes are unsure, his muscles tensed, he is trying to suck in his stomach and puff up his chest, and there is a rip, it seems, in his briefs. The boys are touching but it's clear they aren't friends – not at the moment, at least. I worry for the tensed boy. He is going to lose his wrestling match; he is going to lose it badly.

And then there is Anay Mann's picture of a breastfeeding woman with headphones over her ears: she looks wary, her head angled away from the camera. Is there someone in the room, just out of the camera's reach? Or has she retreated into her own thoughts? And why is it that children's toys can add such menace to a picture, as is the case with the yellow smiling object, its head bobbing, at the edge of the image?

I would see this exhibition differently if it were in Karachi. Or Mumbai. Or Dhaka. In London, I am so far removed from these landscapes I'm aware of the photographs' "otherness". But there's also this: any kind of simultaneous engagement between these three nations, with so much in common and so much that sets them apart, is almost unheard of within the subcontinent itself. In Karachi, Dhaka or Mumbai, I would spend a very long time watching people look at these photographs. How we see ourselves; how we see each other – these two questions would be politically charged where they are not here. Strange that, only 63 years after the Raj, London should seem such a historically neutral venue, comparatively speaking. #

First published in The Guardian, January 6, 2010

Kamila Shamsie is the author of four novels, In the City by the Sea, Salt and Saffron, Kartography, and Broken Verses - all published by Bloomsbury. She lives in London and Karachi, and is presently teaching in New York State

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

One of the first Bangladeshi son to be Knight

Photo: Sir Fazle Hasan Abed

S M NAZER HOSSAIN

FAZLE HASAN Abed, founder & chairperson of world’s largest non-governmental organisation BRAC, is a visionary whose relentless efforts and innovative ideas have changed life in many ways as far as the poor in our country, and beyond, are concerned.

Abed - who holds dual British and Bangladesh citizenship - will be knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2010 for services in tackling poverty.

The awesome news is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of Britain has taken note of Abed's services to humanity and decided to knight human honour bestowed upon only truly remarkable personalities. Abed's name was included in the Queen's New Year's Honours List.

He Abed is to be made a Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) and is the first person of Bangladeshi origin to be honoured with a knighthood by the British Crown since 1947.

Abed is the second person in his family to be honoured with a knighthood. His grand uncle, Justice Nawab Sir Syed Shamsul Huda, was knighted by the British Crown in 1913.

Needless to say, Abed belongs to that rare genre of committed human beings who love to work for the less fortunate, happily and selflessly. He has also been awarded for empowering the poor in Bangladesh and globally.

BRAC is the largest NGO in the third-world working in three continents. That alone tells Abed's success story rather convincingly. He has been able to bring about a quiet revolution in Bangladesh villages and elsewhere.

"I now want to build on this success to continue Brac's fight against poverty not only in Bangladesh but in eight other countries in the world where we are involved - Afghanistan, Uganda, Tanzania, Southern Sudan, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Sri Lanka," he told BBC journalist from his headquarters in Bangladesh capital Dhaka.

The challenge of alleviating poverty in Bangladesh must have been alarming one in the early 1970s. BRAC has shown the way to millions of rural poor and instilled in them the confidence to come out of the vicious poverty cycle which was a stumbling block in the way of development. But men like Abed never give up. He has proved that concerted and planned action can help overcome the biggest odds. BRAC is now globally recognized as a pioneer of poverty alleviation. He has shown that Bangladesh can indeed be a model to all developing and underdeveloped countries fighting poverty.

The fields in which BRAC works are many and all of them have been selected in light of our socio-political needs. For example, BRAC's non-formal primary education programme, which targets the under-privileged children, expanded to a point where it had 37,500 primary schools in June 2008 and it continues to grow. Its public health care programme is now a major service provider in the health sector for more than 92 million people. The programme includes some vital components like immunization and services for mothers. The child immunization drive has been a huge success. Yet another health campaign also drew attention of the international community for providing knowledge and training to combat diarrhoeal diseases by simple oral saline solution of clean water mixed with salt-sugar.

The recognition given to Abed once again reminds us that dedication, commitment and integrity are always rewarded in the long run. When BRAC formally began in 1972, it was a modest beginning for the organisation.

Though BRAC did not exist, Abed’s first experience with disadvantaged people was during bloody war of independence in 1971. He brought aid to thousands of refugees who fled north-eastern region of Bangladesh and took refuge in India. He sold his house in England, quit his high-paid job and joined hands to alleviate the disadvantaged population in post-war Bangladesh. His intervention was very crucial.

But Abed's leadership and guidance has elevated it to the position that it has now. We congratulate Fazle Hasan Abed on his being honoured by Her Majesty and believe that it will only further encourage his determined spirit to continue to work for emancipation of poverty-stricken population in Bangladesh and in other countries in Asia, Africa and South America. #

S M Nazer Hossain, Executive Director of ISDE Bangladesh, Chittagong and could be reached isde.bangladesh@gmail.com

Edited by: Saleem Samad, with reports from BBC online