Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bangladesh: Torture and Extra-Judicial Killings

Despite Promises, No End to Systematic Human Rights Abuses

The Awami League government has not kept its promise after its election victory in December 2008 to show “zero tolerance” for abuses by its security forces, New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented in World Report 2011. Two years on, new extrajudicial killings have been reported, and those responsible have not been brought to justice.

The 649-page World Report 2011, the organization’s 21st annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide. Bangladesh should immediately end systematic human rights abuses, including stopping extrajudicial executions and torture by its security forces, Human Rights Watch said in the chapter on Bangladesh. It should allow the media, political opponents, and labor rights activists to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association fully, Human Rights Watch said.


THE ELECTED government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed made strong commitments to address serious human rights problems in 2010, but those promises were not realized, as extrajudicial executions and torture continued, as well as impunity for members of the security forces. The government mounted sustained attacks on the right to freedom of expression of the media and political opposition. Labor union activists protesting for higher wages were systematically targeted and, in some cases, arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges.

Abuses by the Rapid Action Battalion and Other Forces
Soon after elections in December 2008, officials in the Awami League-led government promised to institute a zero-tolerance policy and bring the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings to justice. Yet little change has taken place, and in 2010 the home minister and other officials denied any wrongdoing by law enforcement agencies, including the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the elite anti-crime, anti-terror force whose officers regularly kill with impunity. The RAB acknowledges that its officers have killed at least 622 people since the force was established in 2004. But in press statements, the RAB has claimed that the victims were shot and killed in “crossfire” after their accomplices opened fire on the force.


The home minister has also supported the claim that RAB officers who have killed were acting in self-defense. In a worrying development, the police appear to have increasingly adopted the RAB’s extrajudicial methods, and several hundred killings have been attributed to the police force in recent years.

Investigations by human rights organizations regularly find that victims were executed while in RAB custody. The bodies of the dead often bear marks of torture, and many survivors of RAB custody have repeatedly alleged ill-treatment and torture. The chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission recommended in December 2009 that all allegations of RAB killings be investigated by an independent commission of inquiry. At this writing the government has taken no action on this, and not a single member of the RAB has been criminally prosecuted for involvement in torture or killings.

In one abortive attempt at justice, the High Court issued a suo moto ruling calling on the government to explain why action should not be taken against the RAB officers responsible for the “crossfire” killing of Lutfar and Khairul Khalashi in November 2009. However, before a ruling could be issued, the relevant judicial bench was reorganized and the case has not since been heard by the court.


Attacks against Civil Society and Media
In July 2010, officials forced the closure of the daily Amar Desh, an opposition-linked newspaper that had reported critically on the government. The editor, Mahmudur Rahman, was arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Act, and he later claimed in court that police officers beat him and that RAB officers blindfolded him, handcuffed him to window bars in a cell, and deprived him of food and water. At this writing the newspaper’s closure is under court appeal.

In another assault on free expression, the police in Dhaka, the capital, temporarily shuttered the Drik Picture Library on March 22, shortly before the opening of an exhibit titled “Crossfire” by Shahidul Alam. Police claimed the show, which featured photographs and installations relating to alleged extrajudicial killings by the RAB, would “create anarchy.” After a public outcry and a legal challenge by the gallery, the exhibit was finally able to open on March 31.

Harassment and Intimidation of Apparel Industry Workers
In 2010 the government continued to severely restrict the work of trade unionists pressing for an increase in the minimum wage. On June 3 the government’s NGO Affairs Bureau suddenly revoked the operating license of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), a group with ties to international trade union and labor rights groups and representatives of foreign clothing brands sourcing from Bangladeshi factories.

In July the government raised the monthly minimum wage for garment workers from 1,662 to 3,000 taka (US$24 to $43). Workers contended that the increase was inadequate to meet the rising urban cost of living. On July 30 and 31, as they have often done in the past, angry garment workers took to Bangladesh’s streets. They blocked roads and damaged factories and other property. Government security forces responded with force, injuring scores of protesters.

On July 30 the government accused Kalpona Akhter, Babul Akhter, and Aminul Islam, the directors of the BCWS, of inciting workers to protest, which the directors denied. Babul Akhter later alleged that on the night of August 28, he was beaten in custody. Kalpona and Babul Akhter were released on bail in September and are awaiting trial at this writing. Islam, who had managed to escape police custody after being detained and allegedly physically abused by the police in June, remains in hiding.
Impunity
In 2010, members of the security forces regularly escaped accountability for killings, acts of torture, and illegal detentions. Several legal provisions effectively shield members of the security forces and other public officials from prosecution by requiring government approval for criminal actions to be initiated.

Military and police regularly employ torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment against detainees, despite constitutional guarantees against torture and Bangladesh’s ratification of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The government failed to investigate the causes of numerous deaths in custody, and there was little action to hold accountable those responsible for the deaths of alleged mutineers from the Bangladesh Rifles border force.


In 2009 the parliament passed amendments to the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973 in order to bring to trial those responsible for human rights crimes in the war of 1971, but the law still falls short of international standards. Five members of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious right-wing political group alleged to have collaborated with Pakistani forces, were in 2010 charged with war crimes, including genocide, and at this writing are awaiting trial before a special war crimes tribunal established in March to investigate crimes committed during Bangladesh’s battle for independence four decades ago.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights
Discrimination against women remains common in both the public and private spheres, despite the presence of women in several key government positions. Bangladesh maintains a reservation against article 2 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which requires it to effectively adopt laws and policies to provide equal rights for women and men.

Domestic violence is a daily reality for many women, and there was no progress made in adopting laws on domestic violence and sexual harassment during 2010. The Acid Survivors Foundation reported 86 acid attacks, primarily against women, between January and September. The courts convicted only 15 perpetrators of acid attacks in 2009.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Section 377 of Bangladesh’s criminal code punishes consensual homosexual conduct with penalties up to life imprisonment.

Border Killings
According to Odhikar, a Bangladesh human rights monitoring group, at least 930 Bangladeshi nationals were killed by India’s Border Security Force between the year 2000 and September of 2010. A number of Indian nationals have also been killed by Indian forces deployed at the border.

Acute poverty and unemployment prompts millions of Bangladeshi nationals to cross the border into India in search of jobs and commerce. While some of those killed are engaged in smuggling goods and contraband, Indian border forces systematically use lethal force without justification. Bangladeshi authorities have repeatedly complained about killings of Bangladeshis, as have human rights groups in both countries. Bangladeshi Home Minister Sahara Khatun in May 2010 said that she would again ask officials in New Delhi, India’s capital, to stop these incidents. Indian authorities declared that their forces have been instructed to exercise restraint, but there was little sign of progress in ending violations during 2010.

Discrimination in Corruption Cases
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party reiterated the government’s strong commitment to address the problem of corruption in 2010. Yet the government recommended that the courts and the Anti-Corruption Commission withdraw hundreds of corruption cases initiated against Awami League supporters on the grounds that they were “politically motivated” cases filed under previous governments. The government has not recommended similar cases against the political opposition for withdrawal, raising significant concerns about discriminatory treatment and politically motivated prosecutions.


Refugees
Bangladeshi authorities did little to prevent a wave of intensifying violence and discrimination against Rohingya refugees from Burma, and refugees were driven out of communities and into makeshift camps. Newly arriving Rohingya were systematically denied the right to seek asylum in 2010.

Key International Actors
Foreign governments–including the US and members of the European Union–raised concerns about extrajudicial executions, stressed the importance of addressing impunity, and called for respect for human rights, but also continued to view the RAB as an important anti-terrorism force. The US has provided training on investigation methods and human rights to the RAB, but has failed to vigorously enforce the Leahy Law and deny US assistance and training to all RAB units credibly implicated in human rights abuses where justice has not been done.

After the arrests of key labor leaders in the garment industry, the US Congress sent a letter in August to US garment importers urging them to put economic pressure on Bangladesh to secure the release of the prisoners. The US Congress also called for action to withhold Generalized System of Preferences trade benefits for Bangladesh on labor rights grounds. #

Excerpts from Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2011 chapter on Bangladesh

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Little Bangladesh must grow into its name


The community worked more than a year to gain the official designation, but most stores in the L.A. neighborhood cater to a Latino or Korean clientele.


RAJA ABDULRAHIM

A NEW sign hangs at the corner of 3rd Street and New Hampshire Avenue in Central Los Angeles: Little Bangladesh.
Just behind it is a small shopping plaza with a Salvadoran restaurant, a pizza joint, a former Korean cigarette shop and a restaurant that serves teriyaki chicken, burritos and boba drinks. Across the street are more Korean- and Mexican-themed businesses.The nearest store with a clear connection to Bangladesh, Bengal Liquors, is a block away. All told, there are fewer than a dozen shops owned by or catering to Bangladeshis along this working-class commercial strip flanked by apartment buildings.

Muhammad "Shamim" Hussain, a leader of the local Bangladeshi community, said that although the sign is significant, the community must work to make the idea behind it a reality. "The sign is the symbol," said Hussain, who came to the U.S. in 1981.

Community leaders applied for the neighborhood recognition more than a year ago. At first, the goal was much grander: to designate a 56-square-block area from 3rd to

Wilshire Boulevard and from Western Avenue to Vermont Avenue — an area generally considered part of Koreatown — as Little Bangladesh.

The Korean community, which had not previously sought an official designation for the area, countered with its own application. And when the City Council voted on the matter in August, the Bangladeshis got only a four-block stretch of 3rd

Street between Alexandria and New Hampshire avenues as their own.


But that strip doesn't yet have the look or feel of a Little Bangladesh. Most stores in the area cater to a Korean or Latino clientele, and many of the dozen or so Bangladeshi stores are blocks away. Aside from a handful of restaurants and grocery stores, the neighborhood features almost no other Bangladeshi shops or services: no clothing boutiques selling salwar kameez, the traditional two-piece attire worn by both men and women; no jewelry shops for bangles; no souvenir shops; no salons offering henna and threading services. And since it closed about a year ago, no community center either.

Since they began their effort, local Bangladeshis have been trying, with limited success so far, to open and relocate businesses to the area, both to show their presence and to provide needed services for the thousands of lower- to middle-income Bangladeshi immigrant families who live there. On any given day, women in brightly colored traditional dress can be seen walking the tree-lined residential streets, often pushing strollers or accompanied by small children. On the weekends, they are joined by men also wearing salwar kameez, but in white or beige.


Although the number of Bangladeshi businesses in the area hasn't risen quickly, the neighborhood designation is an acknowledgment of the local Bangladeshi presence and recognition that it has been positive, said Manju Kulkarni, executive director of the South Asian Network, a cultural and advocacy group with an office nearby.

The network estimates the current Bangladeshi population in the area at more than 20,000, based on a community mapping project it did five years ago.

"Now the people, they are going to say, 'This is my place, I have to build it up' … because this is the biggest news of our history in the U.S.," said Maminul "Bachu" Haque, who owns a travel agency a few blocks away and is interested in relocating to the new district. He moved from Bangladesh to the U.S. in 1983.


Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area, led the effort to forge a compromise between the Bangladeshi and Korean communities. LaBonge said he had initially wanted to designate a stretch of 3rd Street as an "international mile" because of its Korean, Salvadoran, Oaxacan and Bangladeshi shops and restaurants. But the Bangladeshis were insistent, he said.

Chang Lee, Koreatown development chairman for the L.A. Korean American Chamber of Commerce, was among those from the Korean and Bangladeshi communities who toured the area with LaBonge a year ago to decide on the boundaries for the new neighborhood designation. He said he expected it to take a while for the relative newcomers to establish as many businesses as his compatriots have during their 40-year presence in the area.

"Their stay in that area is not that long, so it will take some time," Lee said of the Bangladeshis. "It's their responsibility to turn that into Little Bangladesh, not just having the name for the name's sake."

There are some signs of progress. The new owner of the 99-cent store at 3rd and Ardmore Avenue plans to open a halal butcher shop next door, catering to the area's new Muslim residents. And a halal butcher nearby is looking to open a restaurant. Other Bangladeshi merchants are looking at every open storefront but say the rents are too high.

The community regards Little India in Artesia as a model. Although Little India, unlike Little Bangladesh, doesn't have an official county designation, it is known across the region as the place to go for saris, gold jewelry and Indian food. The new neighborhood must work to establish that kind of recognition, its leaders said.

When people come to the area, Hussain said, they should enjoy a full Bangladeshi experience.

On Dec. 16, the anniversary of Bangladesh's 1971 victory over Pakistan in its war of independence, residents hope to close several blocks of 3rd Street for a celebration. By then, they hope the Bangladeshi-owned businesses along the strip — even those catering to a Latino clientele — will feature signs in Bangla.

In a cramped second-floor apartment one block north of 3rd, Taslimah Parveen sells formal and casual salwar kameez she brings back from annual trips to Bangladesh. When customers arrive, she brings out large plastic bins full of the folded two-piece outfits, many of them beaded.

For the last few years, Parveen has been looking for a small shop where she could open a boutique instead of selling the clothing in her living room or driving to Little India.

Many of the Bangladeshi women she knows make the drive to Artesia for such things as threading, a hair removal method, or henna at an accommodating salon. Many end up "spending $20 on gas to do a $5 threading," her daughter, Mahajabeen Mahtab, said.

Parveen has looked at four or five stores, but rents that were already too expensive at $2.50 per square foot have risen to $3 and higher, her daughter said. The area's comparatively high rents were the reason for the closure last year of the community center that had stood for several years near Deshi, a popular grocery and restaurant featuring Bangladeshi and Indian food, Hussain said.

"I think we need the whole boutique thing, the culture," Mahtab said. "I think they can do a lot better. I think they can get a lot more stores. But it's tough." #

First published in Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2010


Raja Abdulrahim is a writer and journalist and is with Los Angeles Times. He could be reached at: raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

UK linked to notorious Bangladesh torture centre

Photo: The headquarters of the Rapid Action Battalion in Uttara. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World/Guardian

Exclusive British authorities pressed for information while men were held at secret interrogation centre where inmates are known to have died under torture, Guardian investigation reveals

IAN COBAIN, and FARIHA KARIM in Dhaka/Guardian UK

UK AUTHORITIES passed information about British nationals to notorious Bangladeshi intelligence agencies and police units, then pressed for information while the men were being held at a secret interrogation centre where inmates are known to have died under torture.

A Guardian investigation into counter-terrorism co-operation between the UK and Bangladesh has revealed a detailed picture of the last Labour government’s reliance on overseas intelligence agencies that were known to use torture.

Meetings and exchanges of information took place between British and Bangladeshi officials in an effort to protect the UK from attacks that might be fomented in Bangladesh, according to sources in both countries.

The likelihood that a number of suspects would be tortured as a result of the meetings went unmentioned, according to the sources. Subsequently, more than a dozen men of dual British-Bangladeshi nationality were placed under investigation, and at least some suffered horrific abuse from the Bangladeshi authorities.

At one point Jacqui Smith, then home secretary, flew to Dhaka for face-to-face meetings with senior officials from one agency, the Directorate-General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), whose use of torture had been the subject of a detailed report by Human Rights Watch, the New York-based NGO, less than eight weeks earlier. Seven months before the visit, a report prepared by Smith’s own department had documented the widespread concern about the routine use of torture in Bangladesh. Smith spoke publicly during the visit about the dangers that could be posed by dual nationals; privately, according to a senior DGFI counter-terrorism officer, she urged that the agency investigate a number of individuals about whom the British were suspicious.

In September it emerged that in recent years MI5 and MI6 have always asked the home secretary or foreign secretary for permission before conducting any information exchange where there was a risk of an individual being tortured. Smith, her successor Alan Johnson and David Miliband, the foreign secretary during the period of the joint UK-Bangladeshi counter-terrorism campaign, have declined to answer questions about the matter.

A number of the British suspects were taken to the secret interrogation centre, known as the Task Force for Interrogation cell (TFI). The location of the TFI and the methods employed by those who work there became clear during the Guardian investigation, with both former inmates and intelligence officials speaking out about its operations.

Faisal Mostafa, from Manchester, was taken to the TFI after Smith’s visit to Dhaka and is alleged to have been forced to stand upright for the first six days of his incarceration, with his wrists shackled to bars above his head. He is then alleged to have then been beaten and subjected to electric shocks while being questioned about Bangladeshi associates. At the point at which he was to be questioned about his associates and activities in the UK, he is said to have been blindfolded and strapped to a chair while a drill was slowly driven into his right shoulder and hip.

This abuse during questioning about the UK is said to have been repeated on a number of occasions. The Guardian has seen evidence that supports the allegation that he was tortured in this manner. The report prepared by Smith’s own department povides warning that the paramilitary police unit that seized this man used precisely this method of torture.

Matiur Rahman, deputy chief of operations at the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the police unit that detained the man, said: “The British were interested in him for some time. There was an assumption he was part of an international network. They gave information to us, and we gave information to them.”

After being tortured for several weeks the man spent almost a year in jail before being freed on bail and allowed to return to the UK.

A second man, Gulam Mustafa, from Birmingham, was being held in Bangladesh during Smith’s visit, and was released before being held a second time last April. He says he was tortured on both occasions while being questioned about associates in the UK, with his interrogators beating him, subjecting him to electric shocks and crushing his knees. He was eventually transferred to a prison hospital, where he was treated for injuries suffered he suffered during interrogation.

Bangladeshi police officers who arrested him the second time say his first arrest had been at the request of MI6. “When we received the file from his first arrest from RAB, it was marked ‘MI6 File’,” said one senior detective. He added that when this man was arrested for the second time, officials from the British high commission in Dhaka contacted police and asked to be debriefed on the results of his interrogation. “They wanted maximum information.” he said.

A third man, Jamil Rahman, from Swansea, is suing the Home Office, alleging that MI5 was complicit in his torture after he was arrested in 2005 and allegedly tortured in between interrogation by two British intelligence officers.

Smith said she would not answer questions “about the timings of any specific authorisations she may or may not have given the security service”. She declined to say whether she accepted that individuals would be at risk of torture when she asked the Bangladeshi authorities to investigate them. Johnson refused to answer any questions about the matter.

Miliband failed to answer a series of questions about dual nationals investigated in Bangladesh, and about any role he played in granting permission for MI6 to be involved in their cases. A spokeswoman issued a statement on his behalf which said that there were no Foreign Office papers showing that ministers were asked to sanction the arrest of Faisal Mostafa or Gulam Mustafa. She added: “David would never ever sanction torture and it is completely wrong to suggest, imply, or leave a shadow of a doubt otherwise. The UK has detailed procedures that uphold the moral and legal conduct of the intelligence agencies and those responsible for them. When David was Foreign Secretary he followed them scrupulously.”

The Foreign Office said both Mostafa and Mustafa had been offered consular assistance, and reiterated the government’s position on torture. “The government have made absolutely clear in the Coalition’s Programme for Government that we will never condone the use of torture,” a spokesman said. “We take all allegations of torture and mistreatment very seriously, and – where we have permission to do so from the individual concerned – raise them with the relevant authorities. Our security cooperation with other countries is consistent with our laws and values.” #

First published in The Guardian, London, January 17, 2011

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Vanishing minorities: Lack of religious freedom

Empire’s Last Casualty
Author: Sachi Ghosh Dastidar
Publisher: Firma KLM
Price: Indian Rupees 575, USD 29
ISBN: 81-7102-151-4


Hindus are facing existential crisis in Bangladesh, yet no one is raising the issue, says SARADINDU MUKHERJI

STUDY OF forced migration or refugees has been deliberately neglected by Indian social scientists primarily because of India’s ‘secular’ politics and ‘progressive’ social science research! This negationism is also due to the diktat of their international patrons whose policy is to prop up Pakistan and Bangladesh as normal state systems.

Muslim separatist tendencies were the basic factors behind Partition. Pakistan was created on the specific demands made by the Muslim League, and it was duly supported by its permanent collaborators — the Indian Communists. The existing accounts on Partition usually “balance” the guilt and sufferings of both the communities in equal measure, and then, blame everything on the British. On the subsequent persecution, discrimination, dispossession and ethno-religious cleansing of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc, the literature is scanty. Herein lies the importance of the book, Empire’s Last Casualty, by Sachi Ghosh Dastidar, a senior academic in the State University of New York and a refugee from East Pakistan.

The plight of Hindus in eastern Bengal (later called East Pakistan and currently Bangladesh) is one of the most traumatic stories in the history of human civilisation — comparable in scale to the elimination of the Pagans, Zoroastrians, Hindus and Buddhists by their Islamic conquerors across the world. The sufferings of the

aborigines of Australia, the Orang Aslis in Malaysia and that of the native “Indians” by their European conquerors belong to the same category of brutality.

Hindus/Buddhists, who constituted 30 per cent of Bangladesh’s population in 1947, have been reduced to less than 10 per cent. The “missing population” amounting to about 25 million are to be found in their unabated mass migration to India, conversion to Islam and merciless elimination. And even this reduction to 30 per cent in 1947 had occurred in a few centuries following Bakhtiyar Khilji’s invasion of Bengal. Thus, the “original sin” cannot be ascribed to the British Empire!

The differences between how the non-Muslims suffered in the West and the East had been described by this reviewer thus: “In Islamic parlance, it may be said that while Hindus and Sikhs in West Pakistan were subjected to jhatka (instant slaughter) at one go, Hindus and Buddhists in East Pakistan became items for halal — the process of slow slitting of the head from the torso” (Subjects, Citizens and Refugees: Tragedy in the Chittagong Hill Tracts 1947-1998).

It must have been a challenge for Dastidar to write this book, as “documentation of migration is one thing, but the documentation of outright killing of Hindus is extremely complicated, stressful and difficult”. And yet he has done this “painful” job well. Through graphs, charts, photographs and original primary source materials, he brings out the heart-rending story of the Direct Action (August 1946) in Calcutta, Noakhali pogroms and other genocides of 1950, 1964, 1970, 1989, 1992, 2001-2 and many more. This gory story of torture, cold-blooded murder and forced conversion, usually backed by the state power and the “holy” men, makes one devastated. The Bangladesh war of independence itself saw the killing of three million people, with more than 90 per cent being Hindus. He also mentions the plight of the Jumma people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and how Khulna, a Hindu-majority district, has been turned into a Hindu-minority district, and how the Muslim population is increasing dangerously in West Bengal.

Dastidar rightly wonders why the ruling political parties in West Bengal dominated by Hindu refugees from the east have never uttered a word on the tragedy of their own kinsmen left behind. He is right in asking why no one in India wanted the Pakistanis responsible for killing three million people during the war of liberation to be put on trial. Why have their harassment, humiliation and exodus continued? Why does the international community keep quiet?

With the exception of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who had resigned from the Nehru Cabinet on this issue, no high-profile person — not even Amartya Sen and Mahasweta Devi with their roots in eastern Bengal — has ever uttered a word on this unending genocide.

The Appendix provides the famous speech of Dhirendranath Dutta (who was later killed by the Pakistanis in 1971) in the Pakistani parliament, pleading for the inclusion of Bangla as one of the official languages in Pakistan. It also has the letter of resignation of Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Scheduled Caste Minister in the Pakistani Cabinet (who fled from Pakistan to India), CIA’s (Kissinger!) role in the brutal coup against Sheikh Mujib and the elimination of most of his family members.

This is a book of rare candour and commitment. The editing, however, could have been more rigorous. #

About the Author: Dr. Sachi (Sabyasachi) Ghosh Dastidar is a Distinguished Service Professor of the State University of New York at Old Westbury. Dastidar has authored seven books and has written over 100 articles, short stories and travelogues.
His awards include Senior Fulbright Award, Distinguished Service Professor of the State University of New York, and honors from New York City Comptroller, NYC Council Speaker, Residents of Mahilara, Madaripur and Uzirpur, all of Bangladesh, Assam Buddhist Vihar, and from Kazakhstan Institute.
Probini Foundation (www.prohini.urg) that his wife and he founded helps educated the orphaned and the poor in 18 institutions in Bangladesh, West Bengal and Assam.


Saradindu Mukherji, the reviewer is professor, University of Delhi, and an expert on Bangladesh

Friday, January 07, 2011

Can Fossilised Ideology Derail Bangladesh’s Development?

BHASKAR ROY

ON NOVEMBER 30, the main opposition party, the BNP, enforced a country-wide strike to protest the ruling Awami League (AL) led government’s mis-governance. Its main alliance partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), joined the strike but only partially. They withdrew after a few hours. The top six leaders of the JEI are already in police custody charged with various crimes ranging from promoting terrorism to war crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh war of liberation from Pakistan.

Among the issues raised by the BNP was the recent eviction of its chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia from her Dhaka cantonment under directions from the highest court in the country. The other important allegation was that the AL government was indulging in anti-national activities by drawing up several economic agreements with India including allowing India transit facilities and use of Bangladesh’s sea ports.

It is interesting, however, that the next day Khaleda Zia vented her spleen in an internal meeting of the party. She chastised some senior leaders who had not taken part in the strike and weakened the protest. The question is why these senior leaders did not take part in the strike? There are signs that the party, formed in 1978 by her late husband army chief and President Ziaur Rahman cobbling together opportunists and anti-liberation forces, and rehabilitating the JEI, has begun to crack following the party’s ignominious defeat in the 2008 elections. Senior party leader Moudud Ahmed was recently expelled from the party for his more moderate and rational views. Under the advice of senior leader and adviser to Khaleda Zia, Salauddin Qader Choudhury, popularly known as SQC, Khaleda has moved to ask the party’s members of Parliament to give her their resignation letters for an en masse resignation from Parliament. SQC is also under the scanner for his role in the 1971 war crimes.

The BNP is confronted by two major challenges. The development issue is the main threat. During the 2001-2006 BNP-JEI alliance government, development was the last priority. What took the front stage was wide spread corruption, promotion of distorted Islamic terrorism, and alliance with Pakistan to destabilize India through terror. The government oversaw the establishment of Pakistan’s ISI sponsored terrorist organizations like Lasker-e-Toiba (LET) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) in Bangladesh to launch terrorism in India.

A major sabotage attempt against India was blown when ten truck loads of arms, ammunitions and explosives were accidentally interdicted at the Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Jetty (CUFL) on April 01, 2004 night by a police officer. The arms consignment was meant for the ULFA insurgents in Assam. Although the BNP-JEI government naturally subverted the investigations in the case, the AL government investigations have revealed startling facts. The ruling parties at the top level and intelligence agency bosses were all involved in this terrorism plan, including Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her elder son Tarique Rahman.

Minister for State for Home Affairs in the BNP-JEI government, Luftozzaman Babar, currently being interrogated in custody, confessed that the Pakistani High Commission in Bangladesh had paid Taka 450 crores to “higher ups” in the BNP-JEI government in appreciation for their cooperation in this operation!

The Bangladesh government of BNP-JEI was a fit case for being listed as sponsors of state terrorism. But the Americans had other ideas. Their priority at that time, as it is now, was being as friendly to Islamic parties.
It, however, defies all logic to understand why the BNP and JEI promoted domestic Islamic terrorism. JEI had their agenda to turn Bangladesh as a country ruled by Sharia law as per their accord with the ISI. But the BNP? The leadership from the very top are anything but religious extremists. Therefore, why did the BNP allow the domestic religious terrorists, the Jaamatul-Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) to stage coordinated bomb attack in 63 of the 64 districts of Bangladesh in August, 2005? According to reports in Bangladeshi media the JMB was to be used for the next general elections in country. A very immature policy, the women and men in the BNP who cosponsored this route did not understand that they would ultimately be subsumed by the same demonic forces they helped to create.

Unfortunately, Khaleda Zia does not appear to have learnt any lesson from the past. But some in her party may have, and hence the fissures.

The lesson is when the ruling parties spend their time and energy in such diabolical pursuits, how can they devote time to development and create employment? The upcoming youth in Bangladesh are now looking at jobs and careers, and not fossilized ideological politics. In the December, 2008 elections 45 per cent voters were the young new voters. They turned the elections. But they are also watching how the Awami League is delivering on their electoral promises.

AL President and Prime Minister, Sk. Hasina, is a new avatar. She is focused on development which will create jobs for the youth and take the country on a new plane. Goldman-Shacs has identified Bangladesh as one of the eleven emerging countries. Response to Bangladesh from countries promoting development in less developed countries has been positive.

Sk. Hasina is also acutely aware of what domestic development, issues, and unresolved but charged emotional historical burdens can stymie development. In her inaugural address as Prime Minister she made eradication of terrorism as her prime initiative. Terrorism is the most destructive element that devours a country. She appears to be working on the premise of an old Chinese saying that the situation in a country reflects the state of the nation.

The tragedy of 1971 hangs as an Albatross around the neck of Bangladesh. When the perpetrators of the tragedy live freely and rule the nationalists there can be no peace. So is the case of Sk. Mujibur Rahman’s assassination, and that of the top leaders of the AL, in 1975. These issues have kept the country divided and in a perpetual state of confrontation. Sk. Hasina has initiated steps, put an end to Bangabandhu’s (Sk. Mujib’s) assassination case, and is working on the others.

Sk. Hasina is fully cognizant of the fact that the opposition rule from 1976 to 2006 except for a short interregnum of 1996-2001, worked on creating a new generation of Bangladeshis in a “hate India” mind set. Children grew up in schools learning from distorted text books that India was the main enemy of Bangladesh. Soldiers targeted a Sikh soldier effigy in their firing practice. All ills of Bangladesh was heaped on India. This created a significant anti-India society of the young. But that started crumbling gradually even before Sk. Hasina took over the government in 2009, thanks to some pro-independence NGOs.

The maturity of Sk. Hasina’s politics and policies in external relations for development is demonstrated by her actions. She took one full year to visit India, then forayed to China, and recently made her circle of Russia and Japan. She made it clear that she was not India-centric, but India was a large fast developing neighbour with a 4000 kms common border, which could promote Bangladesh’s development including by facilitating trade and economic relations with countries like Nepal and Bhutan by allowing and facilitating transit through India.
At the same time, Sk. Hasina realizes the importance of China and other countries. Her message is quite clear. Dhaka is not interested in making alliances with one country against another. But there are priorities with some countries including India as necessity demands, but purely on economic and security relations. Bangladesh would not like India to get into alliances that can trouble the region which can put Dhaka in a difficult situation.

Bangladesh’s appreciation of India’s regional role was made very clear in an op-ed by a PMO official recently in the Daily Star. Anu Mohammad, a Director in the PMO dissected US President Barack Obama’s India visit as follows. He welcomed the growing India-US relations, and the growth of India’s economic power which could deliver the rest of South Asia from poverty. Yet there were some concerns. American policies created problems as in Afghanistan, and hoped India would not join USA’s encirclement of China strategy which would be disastrous for the region especially Bangladesh, said Anu Mohammad.

The article obviously reflected the Bangladesh PMO’s views and concerns. Bangladesh sincerely appreciated India’s growth to big power status as an engine of development for South Asia, especially Bangladesh. Dhaka expects the boundary and enclave issues will be resolved permanently when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Bangladesh, probably next January. The expectations and concerns expressed through the Op-ed should be appreciated in India. At the same time, Bangladesh must remain reassured by the track record of India’s foreign policy. India and China are committed to engage each other for further improvement of relations and focusing on development. Bilateral issues between them remain in another compartment.
As a neighbour of India with a 4,000 kms border there is an urgent necessity to remove the basic contentious issues between the two countries, especially on the borders, and sign the boundary agreement with adjustments to the 1974 India-Mujib accord. The enclaves issue especially that of the Bangladeshi enclaves of Dahagram and Angarpota, remain a serious irritant which will be addressed. Resolution of water issues will follow. India and Bangladesh are on the stepping stone of a relationship that is momentous for the development of the region. Sk. Hasina’s efforts attract input from others including China, Japan, USA, Russia and the EU can make the dream of “Sonar Bangla” (Golden age of Bangla) come true. But beware of the spoilers.

The main opposition in Bangladesh, the BNP and the JEI, are fixated on derailing Bangladesh-India relations. They are a total counterpoise against development in Bangladesh with an Indian stamp. This is the main platform of their politics, and they are getting increasingly disturbed that they have failed till now to raise a national voice against the India-Bangladesh development initiatives. It will be a costly omission to forget that Pakistan remains a very interested party in derailing Bangladesh’s development in the current paradigm. Their comrades in arms remain the BNP-JEI alliance.

The Bangladeshis, have been influenced by decades long Chinese propaganda, as some others also have, that India was expanding its hegemonism over neighbours and beyond. This perception must be disabused. Hegemonism is an anti-thesis to India’s development strategy.

There is a lot of hard work ahead for Sk. Hasina and her government. She also has the responsibility to curb the ills in her own party and affiliated organization. Sk. Hasina has, perhaps, taken up the biggest challenge and the aspirations of liberation which no other predecessors had even conceived. The country is poised to acquire the escape velocity to break out of less developed gravity.

India is committed to Bangladesh’s development. But New Delhi must act more with alacrity on the pending issues and promises. India and Bangladesh are on the steps of a new sub regional development paradigm which includes Nepal and Bhutan. The natural extension is through Myanmar to South East Asia.

The BNP and the JEI are determined to derail the Awami League’s development road map. This group has support from some other quarters, and both Dhaka and New Delhi must be alert to that. This quadrangular region (India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan) is looking at a great future. It is for India to take the lead to steer this quadrangle through the rocky roads. Bangladesh can be an eminent partner. #

First published in South Asia Analysis Group, India, December 07, 2010


Bhaskar Roy is a research associate with South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The story behind Arabinda’s arrest in Bangladesh

Arabinda Rajkhowa, the chairman of the ULFA
Photo: Anupam Nath/AP

PABITRA GOGOI

IT WAS a scene that seemed to have taken right out of a silver screen thriller, when the man who headed India’s Most Wanted list had to be on the run after being abandoned and betrayed by the country that had given him refuge.

Knowing that he was being cornered by the Bangladesh security forces, the man then tried to escape on the night of December 1, 2009, only to be caught by the country’s intelligence agents.
The protagonist here is none other than Arabinda Rajkhowa, the chairman of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), who narrated the story of his escape and eventual capture to his family members after being released from jail.

According to family sources, Rajkhowa was travelling with his daughter and a boy named Raja from Chittagong to Cox Bazar, when around 10 pm, their bus was intercepted by security personnel in a dense forest area. One of the officers took him out of the bus and asked him to put his hands up in open air near a big tree. It was pitch darkness.

When the security officer asked his name, Rajkhowa uttered the name he had assumed in Bangladesh. But the officer insisted he reveal his real name. When Rajkhowa said it was indeed the real name, the security officer then pulled Rajkhowa’s photograph out of his own pocket and said, “Is this not you, Arabinda Rajkhowa, the ULFA chairman?”

Rajkhowa realised he had been caught and there would be no way out. When the security personnel took him to another vehicle, Rajkhowa told them that his daughter and son (though Raja is not his son) were also in the bus, the personnel then took them along as well.

They were then taken to a camp where he noticed a shooting range. It was twilight, around 4 am. He thought he would be shot dead.

After some time, a black hood was put on his head and he was taken to a cell. When he was put in chains against a wall, he requested the security personnel not to kill him and not to hand him over to India. The ULFA chairman told his captors that people of Assam had played an important role in the formation of Bangladesh. Rajkhowa then tried to remind them of Mukti Bahini, the group instrumental in the formation of Bangladesh, the erstwhile East Pakistan, and the role Assamese people had played in the armed uprising.

All these pleadings fell on deaf ears, though. The securitymen detained them for two days before handing them over to the Assam Police at Dawki on December 4, 2009, along with ULFA deputy commander-in-chief Raju Barua, Rajkhowa’s wife, daughter, son and the boy called Raja.

Rajkhowa, however, does not believe that anybody from his outfit betrayed him and played a role in his capture. He is aware that the Bangladeshi intelligence is now very advanced. Not merely the intelligence, the Bangladesh Government is now upgrading all other departments to extract a higher level of excellence. They also send top officers of every department to the US for higher training.

The ULFA chairman knew that the outfit started losing ground in Bangladesh as soon as Sheikh Hasina came to power. The Sheikh Hasina government thought that the ULFA had involvement in some violence taking place in Dhaka.

Rajkhowa now believes that everything can be settled with cooperation of the people of Assam and said the outfit will never go against the peoples’ opinion in order to solve Assam’s biggest problem. #

First published in Assam Tribune, Guwahati, January 3, 2011


Pabitra Gogoi is Guwahati, Assam based journalist

Monday, January 03, 2011

People and the future

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH HAS achieved broad-based poverty reduction through empowerment of millions of rural women, which has created massive economic activity in the villages benefiting the nation. It has also made extensive progress in economy and the social and children education program.

Last month Bangladesh Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina received the coveted United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) award for significant achievements towards attaining the goal. Immediately the government portrayed the achievement of the new leadership.

Well the credit does not go to the government’s human development initiatives or its donor-driven development policies, said a development economist and social scientist Dr. Hossain Zillur Rahman.
The credit should be given exclusively to peoples initiatives. Like farmers, empowered women, migrant workers and small traders, the awarding-winning economist explained. Holistically speaking the non-descriptive drivers have painted globally a positive image of young nation.

Hidden and seasonal famine among the hard-core poor, especially landless peasants has taken a back seat. The poverty has been halved and hunger among the rural and urban poor is gradually becoming faint.

Malnutrition among children remains omnipresent, but silent, contributing to increment of child mortality. In fact host of reasons are responsible for malnutrition. The parents who cannot afford their children diary products, like poor milk consumption causes malnutrition. And children continue to remain vulnerable to poor nutrition consumption.

Primary education had a rosy picture for couple of decades. The enrolment of thousands of primary education in rural areas is of course satisfactory. Notwithstanding the encouraging girl-child education is in the green category. The gray area is that the primary school completion rate is in the red category. Despite strategic efforts the retention of children in school is far from reality.

Bangladesh made significant progress in reducing population growth until recently, but have remerged as an undaunted issue with a reasoning of premature policy shifts. The shrinking budget has been attributed to downplay of once vibrant social campaign and door-to-door delivery services which helped in stabilizing population growth. For three decades the two-child policy was a model in population control for South Asian neighbors. Now it is struggling to keep itself floating.

The country independent for nearly 40 years has a GDP growth at 24 percent. It needs to increase to 30-40 percent, if the nation wishes to break away from the cycle of poverty and economic growth.

Another foreseeable challenge which has been over looked, Dr Rahman said was the 1.8 million youths who are joining the labor force every year. The limitation explained by Dr. Rahman was that the quality of education the youths have acquired is far from satisfactory and fails to attract the employers.

If in the coming decade the nation of 156 million does not take breakthrough initiatives to improve the desired statistics at the earliest, the qualitative education needs to be imparted to the youths.

The peculiar political culture which dominates the negative growth of human development has been described by Dr. Rahman as “zero-some” political competition in the snake and ladder game.

The elite in the political enclaves hand in hand with the politicians in the corridors of political power are milking the nation dry of its resources meant for the development of the poor to achieve social as well as economic development.

When the people are able to engage the government to shun criminalization of politics the image earned during the democratization progress since 1990 would be retained.

First published in Southasia magazine, Pakistan, December 2010

Saleem Samad is a journalist based in Bangladesh, elected Ashoka Fellow for Journalism and recipient of Hellman-Hammet Award