Saturday, April 23, 2011

Muhammad Yunus knew seeking to enter politics in Bangladesh would receive ‘bruising response'

SALEEM SAMAD

Professor Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of microfinance seems to have been aware of the risks and consequences of a political ambition he made after the military takeover in 2007 in Bangladesh, an Indian newspaper wrote on Friday.
The Hindu newspaper quoting The Indian Cables accessed in Wikileaks, the whistleblower internet-based news hub said Nobel laureate Yunus told Henry Jardine, the U.S. Consul General in Kolkata, India that he was aware of the “potentially bruising response” it would provoke from the ‘two ladies' [Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister, and Khaleda Zia, former Prime Minister] and other established political figures.”

Understanding that Yunus strong interest to join the political fray, Manoj Mohanka, president of the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce (CCC), raised few questions about the “messy world” of Bangladesh politics and the “likelihood of Yunus reputation being tarnished.” Yunus responded and said that “he understood the dangers,” but “felt that responsible people had to step into the political field to make a real change in Bangladesh, which was wracked by corruption and poor governance.”
When US diplomat raised questions about rising Islamic radicalism, Yunus explained that “Muslim fundamentalists are a fringe not accepted by the Bangladeshi mainstream.”

In March 2011, the Bangladesh Central Bank removed Prof. Yunus as the Managing Director of Grameen Bank he founded, holding that he was 70 years old, well past retirement age. His appeals against the order were rejected by the courts, including finally by the Supreme Court.

A cable ( 96421: unclassified) sent on February 13, 2007 from the U.S. Consulate in Kolkata documented in detail the conversation between Jardine and Yunus when the latter visited Kolkata to participate in certain programs. During a conversation over lunch, which was hosted by the CCC, Jardine enquired about Yunus political ambition.
Yunus bitterly criticized Awami League [the ruling political party led by Sheikh Hasina], a primary advocate of a socialist, secular nation, had signed an agreement with fundamentalist group Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish ”to “recognize fatwas (religious edits) issued by Imams and block the introduction of laws contrary to Sharia law.”

Yunus in response to Consul General explains that it was “a reflection of the Awami League’s moral bankruptcy and was based on pure political calculus to garner a few additional votes and another example of the need for a new political party.”

The founder of Grameen Bank was receptive to the idea of Bangladesh expanding economic relations with India. However, he was concerned “that often it became a divisive political issue, with Bangladeshi politicians stoking resentment against India for political gain.” He was also quick to point out that all was not well with the Indian government too, “particularly the significant non-tariff barriers that restricted Bangladeshi goods from reaching Indian markets.”

Grameen Bank founded in 1976 empowered nearly 10 million poverty stricken population, mostly women, who received modest banks loans. Prof Yunus and the Grameen Bank together were awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Price in 2006.
Describing his mind, he narrated to the U.S. diplomat, included the opening of the Chittagong port to regional trade with India, Burma, Bhutan and China, and “the possibility of financing a new ‘mega-port' project in Chittagong to meet the regional demand” through the Grameen Bank.

The cable concluded after documenting Yunus views, and said he was “a person of great moral stature and strong organizational skills” and that his candidacy “could offer a possible out from the present Hasina-Khaleda a zero-sum game that cripples Bangladesh's democratic process.” [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com