Monthly Coupon

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mutiny reveals Bangladesh chaos

Photo: Mutineers with face mask spelling out their grievances over megaphone addressing the media corps


THE MUTINY by Bangladesh's border security forces in the capital Dhaka has brought back the spectre of violence that has marked the country's recent political history.

That the army had to be called out to quell the uprising just weeks after December's election is an important reminder that the country's political situation remains complex and fragile despite the restoration of democratic rule.

Analysts had warned prior to the elections that any unrest could distract the poll winners from implementing much-needed economic reforms and discourage prospective investment.

They also voiced concern about the military's role once an elected government took charge.

The assumption at that time was that the army would remain behind the scenes for a while to see if the new government could tackle endemic corruption and avoid violence.

Overt role
Now that violence on such a dramatic scale has erupted in the centre of Dhaka, the generals may feel compelled to attempt a more overt role.

However, conflicts elsewhere in the world are likely to persuade the Bangladeshi army to leave governance at home to the politicians.

The incentive it has for doing so is that minimum local involvement means maximum flexibility to serve in various overseas UN peacekeeping missions.

Those missions, in which Bangladesh often has the largest contingent, generate compensatory payments to the country as well as salaries for the participating soldiers and officers salaries far above what they earn at home.

This very disparity could be a factor behind the current mutiny.

The Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), whose primary duty is border security, by the very nature of its job does not often get to share the UN bounty. It also does not have any officers of its own. Commissioned officers from the army do that job.

According to local media, BDR troops are demanding better wages, more food subsidies and additional holidays.

Major-General Shakil Ahmed, the BDR chief, has previously refused to listen to his troops' demands.

"It seems to be a mutiny of BDR troops" against their regular army officers, an armed forces spokesman said.

Coups and instability
The mainly Muslim but secular country of 144 million, formerly known as East Pakistan, has a history of instability, coups and countercoups since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971.

It experienced credible democracy for a while. But faced with serious economic and social crises, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's founder president, assumed authoritarian powers.

Shortly afterwards, in 1975, soldiers mounted a coup, killing Mujib and wiping out his family as well as his cabinet.

After years of rule by army generals in and out of uniform, Sheikh Hasina, Mujibur Rahman's daughter, and Khaleda Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman, another slain president, alternated as prime ministers over a 15-year period that ended in late 2006.

Those times were marked by chaos, boycotts of parliament by losing parties, lack of compromise, bad faith and mudslinging, and deadly violence inflicted by and on political partisans.

"Regardless of who wins the election, the next government and the opposition parties will face the challenges of making parliament work and contending with an army that wants a greater say in politics," the International Crisis Group, which tracks conflicts worldwide, had warned in December.

While the sense of déjà vu may bring back prophesies of doom, it is still too early for the army to overtly exercise its influence.

The money involved in terms of much-needed foreign aid for the country and the UN peacekeeping earnings will discourage the military from taking on a more central role at least for now. #

First published in Al Jazeera TV online, February 27, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

Renegade troops cause havoc in Dhaka

The Economist magazine on Mutiny in Bangladesh

ONLY two months after a return to democratic rule, Bangladesh’s new government faces its toughest test yet. On February 25th the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), a 45,000-strong paramilitary force, primarily responsible for guarding the country’s borders, staged an armed mutiny. The renegade troops took 100 hostages and killed their commanding officer and many others. The army moved in to quell the mutiny. There ensued a 20-hour siege of the BDR’s headquarters that left perhaps 50 people dead and turned a posh residential area of Dhaka into a battle-zone. Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, offered an amnesty and in response the mutineers began to surrender. But the next day the rebellion rekindled and spread to a dozen other towns across the country. As The Economist went to press, there were reports that the army was taking control of BDR border posts and tanks were approaching BDR headquarters in Dhaka. The government has agreed to consider the mutineers’ demands for better conditions. Another grievance is believed to be the BDR’s exclusion from lucrative UN peacekeeping missions. The crisis will strain the army’s relations with the new government, led by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, which won a huge parliamentary majority in an election in December. Since then, Sheikh Hasina has moved swiftly to limit the army’s role. However, with many of its officers among the dead, the army might resist the amnesty and push for the legal penalty for mutiny: death by hanging. And as ever in Bangladesh, with its long history of coups and counter-coups, there is speculation that such a rebellion would not be possible without the backing of a faction within the army itself. #

First published in The Economist, February 26, 2009

Is the danger over from Bangladesh’s political horizon?

Photo: Civilians caught in crossfire being carried by neighbours to hospital in Dhaka

THE RECENT “sepoy mutiny” at the Bangladesh Rifles Headquarters and its subsequent spread to other BDR posts made me sad and worried. Although the lower tier personnel of the border security forces have legitimate grievances, someone may ask a plain question, “Why this mutiny did not occur during the long period of the Caretaker Government?” It may be logical to conclude that the mutineers took the ample opportunity to strike when a new democratically elected government with less of military influence in the nascent stage of ruling the country. In other words the rebels realized they could resort to violent protest when the government seemed to be an easy prey for intimidation and coercion.

The present secular leaning Bangladesh Government was walking on a thin ice as they have taken a bold step for trial of the 1971's war criminals. Many of the mass murderers were the leaders of the influential Islamist party, Jamaat-i-Islami of Bangladesh. The present government’s initiative antagonized two important extraterritorial forces undoubtedly. They are (I) A few members of the powerful Pakistani army and ISI with sympathetic view of War Criminals of 1971 and (II) A significant section of the global jihadists. The present Bangladesh administration, by calling for the trial of the mass murderers of 1971 already came into collision course with such external forces. Internally, a section of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and most of the Jamaat's are not happy with this political development.

It had been well known that during the rule of BNP-Jamaat alliance (2001-2006), madrasah graduates were welcomed to join Bangladesh army. Although there is no statistics of such nature, it is believed, many rank and file and non-commissioned officers of the Bangladesh military had Islamist educational background. It may be true most of the personnel at the higher echelon of Bangladesh military are not hard core Islamists. Neither are they die hard Jamaat supporters. It may be also true, Awami League or the current 14 party alliance do not have too many strong sympathizers among the army brass. Nonetheless, considering the global political situation, no one can expect a coup conspiracy from the military higher ups.

For some time, a few analysts opined a soldier uprising instigated by Islamists and Jamaat's could be a good possibility. They said, as the Jamaat’s are now cornered to the wall, they have no other way but to destabilize the nation by any means. A sepoy mutiny occurred at Bangladesh Rifles Headquarters. The relevant question is, are the Jamaat’s or the global jihadists the behind-the-scene instigators for this violent act? #

Jamal Hasan is a secular social justice activist and is based in Washington DC. He could be reached at

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The BDR Revolt and Role of Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies

Photo: Para-military forces on regular border patrol

TODAY'S REVOLT in the BDR HQ in Dhaka is an eye-opener. Due to revolt, reportedly 50 lives were lost. Many civilian also died owing to stray bullets. Whatever the causes of the revolt, it is a fact that there has been a serious lapse of intelligence failure and secondly the death of civilians, closure of schools and postponement of exam demands a serious debate on the merits of keeping headquarters of security forces or cantonments inside crowded localities of the nation’s capital.

In USA, the forefathers of its independence nearly 230 years ago decided not to allow heavy weapons within the borders of capital i. e. Washington D. C or the District of Columbia. However, it allowed individual citizen to bear arms for their self protection. In the case of Bangladesh given its history of coups and counter coups, it may be necessary to forbid heavy weapons within 50 miles radius of the capital city of Dhaka. The recent BDR revolt and especially killing of innocent civilians and bystanders once again reminded the Bangladeshi nationals to seriously discuss this issue of relocating both the Dhaka cantonment and the BDR HQ away from the city limit.

If the BDR Headquarters would have been outside Dhaka away from Pilkhana, an overcrowded area of civilian population surrounded by schools and shops, such casualties could be minimized. Therefore, it may be recommended to relocate BDR HQ away from capital city.

Similarly, there is hardly any rationale to have Army Cantonment within the capital city. This may be relocated 50 miles away from the capital city to a remote locality. In that case, prime and expensive lands will be made available for growth and expansion of Dhaka city. Moreover, fear and tension of revolt within the cantonment causing disruption of normal life would be lessened.

In Dhaka, civilian vehicles are not allowed to go through the cantonment area and such is an additional cause for bumper-to-bumper hour-long traffic jams on the VIP road. If the Cantonment is relocated away from its current location, such horrendous traffic congestion could be lessened. Bangladesh Army is a part of Bangladesh society and it desires to improve quality of life of its countrymen. In spite of this, it is unfortunate that they have not opened up their roads to the general public yet on their own initiative. Since army fails to open them up on its own, it may be necessary to relocate Dhaka cantonment for the good of the nation.

The BDR Revolt that occurred following Prime Minister’s trip to the BDR HQ is mind boggling. If this would happened during Prime Minister’s visit, it could have created a national crisis. Naturally, serious questions could be raised as regards the efficiency of the Bangladesh intelligence agencies. According to many, the focus of the Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies both the DGFI and the NSI have been basically pivots around finding and codifying information regarding civilian opinion leaders and political leadership. The rationale for secretly recording phone, fax and mobile calls of politicians, journalists, opinion leaders and talk-show participants in Bangladesh in addition to lawyers and businessmen has been designed with a view to collect information about civilian activities. Even their everyday activities and mobility are being watched in the name of nation’s interest. Unfortunately, such appears to be uncommon in the area of security forces. No wonder, Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies miserably failed in protecting its founder President Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or founder of the BNP party, General Ziaur Rahman. It even failed to provide intelligence information regarding the terrorist bombing attack of a public rally of Sheikh Hasina on August 21, 2004 in which 23 people were killed including the wife of current President of Bangladesh, Zillur Rahman and nearly 370 were wounded or maimed for life. It failed to provide intelligence information regarding grenade attacks on the former Finance Minister ASM Kibria or on British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury. It also failed to furnish intelligence information regarding jehadi bombings in 493 towns and cities of Bangladesh simultaneously.

In fact, the performance record of Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies till to-date is very poor. It gets an F grade. The recent BDR revolt is a case in point.

Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies are mostly headed by military personnel unlike industrialized countries. Most of the heads of the DGFI and the NSI in Bangladesh have been active duty military officials. In contrast, most of the heads of U. S. and the British Intelligence Agencies, for example, FBI, CIA, or MI5 (British) are non-military personnel.

The current FBI Director is Robert Mueller. He has been a lawyer. The current CIA Chief is Leon Panetta, a former congressman and a head of a Public Policy Institute at the California University. He was formerly Chief of Staff of President Clinton.

If we investigate the personal history of the heads of FBI for the last quarter century, one will be surprised that most of the intelligence heads were lawyers or judges. For example, there has been a total of 7 FBI Directors from February 23, 1978 till to-date of which three were Acting Directors. All four Directors were lawyers/judges, and among the Acting Directors, two were career intelligence officers and one was an accountant. William Webster (1978-87), William Sessions (1987-93), Louis Freeh (1993-2001) and Robert Mueller (2001-current) were Directors and all of them were lawyers/judges. The Acting ones; John Otto (26/5/87-2/11/87) and Floyd Clarke (19/7/93-1/9/93) were special FBI agents, and Thomas Pickard (25/6/01-4/9/01) was a CPA.

Given the limitations, the performance record of FBI and the CIA that are mostly run by civilian authority is much superior to that our DGFI or the NSI which are mostly headed by active-duty military officials.

Take the case of the British Intelligence Agencies. The British Military Intelligence Section 5 known as MI-5 or its agencies like SIS, MI-6, QCHQ or DIS are again mostly headed by civilian officials unlike Bangladesh. For example, the current head of MI5 is Mr. Jonathan Evans, a career intelligence officer. Prior to him Baroness Manningham-Buller (2002-07), a former school teacher headed it for 5 years. During 2000-02, Sir Stephen Lander, a PhD in History was its head. Prior to him, Dame Stella Rimington (1992-96), a diplomat’s wife headed the British intelligence organization. It may surprise Bangladeshi military leaders that a well known football player, Sir Patrick Walker headed MI-5 from 1988 through 1991.

There is no denying that the Intelligence Agencies of USA and UK are superior to that of Bangladesh. Admittedly they have more resources and superior information technology vis-à-vis Bangladesh. However, they have also more restrictions as they have to work within many legal limitations and restrictions unlike Bangladesh. Instead of this, their performance record is superior.

This raises a valid question. Should we stop appointing active-duty military personnel in the intelligence agencies that mainly focus their attention on political or civil leaderships? Instead should we follow that of the USA and UK for the greater interest of the country?

It is a fact that in Bangladesh, two of its Presidents were assassinated not by their political supporters or by any public citizen. They were assassinated by members of active-duty security forces. It is unfortunate, and it looks odd when in the name of security, a head of the government for example, Sheikh Hasina is kept at a distance from public thus denying her from mingling with her electorates in Bangladesh. This was true in the case of Khaleda Zia as well. In addition, it looks odd when security personnel stand next to the head of the government in all public events. This custom must be done away with to improve nation’s image both home and abroad. Remember, such practice is not common in civilized countries like USA, UK, France, Italy, Switzerland, Finland and the like. Remember, their heads of governments in no way, less exposed to security risk.

The custom in USA is that once a person is allowed to enter the premises through checking, he/she is allowed to meet the President freely. The security forces stay at a distance unlike Bangladesh. The way the Bangladeshi security forces behave is deplorable. They literally keep the Prime Minister away from the public. It is a disgrace in the name of security. When the Prime Minister is surrounded by security officers overlooking her shoulder, it lowers our image in the free world. Such basically shows that the political leadership of Bangladesh is still under military subjugation or control in spite of a free, fair, transparent and credible election. Under such aggressive security guardianship, it can neither improve its image nor can attract increasing FDI. #
Dr. Abdul Momen [] is a professor of economics and business in Boston, USA

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mutinous Bangladeshi Border Guards Agree to Surrender

Photo: Bangladesh border gaurds on shooting spree protesting military officers hegemony on them a day after Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina attend a ceremony and decorates a BDR officer


DISGRUNTLED BORDER guards who went on a shooting spree against their superiors in the crowded Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka on Wednesday agreed to surrender after the government promised amnesty, officials said. At least one person was killed in the crossfire and nearly a dozen were injured, police said.

The firefight began about 10 a.m. Bangladeshi time when mutinous members of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles -- also known as the BDR -- took an unknown number of hostages inside their headquarters. It went on throughout the day. The campus also includes a school where children were trapped inside, according to media reports. There were also concerns for people at a nearby shopping center reportedly seized by the rebel troops.

The mutiny was the first crisis for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's fragile government, which came to power after a peaceful election in late December, succeeding a military-backed interim government.

The agreement was reached at a meeting between Hasina and 15 rebel soldiers at her residence. Soon afterward, independent television channels showed children reunited with weeping parents.

"The prime minister has announced amnesty for those involved in the trouble. We now hope to lay down our arms and go back to barracks," Mohammed Towhid, a spokesman for the mutineers, told reporters after the meeting.

Hasina, who also served as the country's prime minister from 1996 to 2001, met senior BDR officers Tuesday at an annual parade, and urged the group's troops to become "more disciplined and remain ever ready to guard the country's frontiers."

On Wednesday, hundreds of the 42,000 Bangladesh Rifles forces gathered inside their headquarters for an annual conference. The conflict apparently erupted over pay issues. Troops chanted slogans for better salaries and living conditions, Bangladeshi media reported.

One guard told reporters during the crisis that the soldiers are fighting for their rights "but do not want to hurt civilians because the common man is the asset of the nation." His comments were interrupted by the sound of gunshots. At one point, the soldier yelled at his fellow guards to cease firing, according to televised reports.

The army moved in to try and stop the unrest, but heavy fighting unfolded through the day.

"Because of our history of political problems, no one was sure if this would end quickly," said Manash Ghosh, a Bangladeshi journalist and eyewitness at the scene. "Parents were very terrified. It wasn't a good day for our country."

A rickshaw puller was killed and three other bystanders were wounded in the crossfire, police said. Flames billowed from the complex and military helicopters hovered overhead as members of a special force called the Rapid Action Battalion fanned out among the congested streets surrounding the building, television broadcasts showed.

Bangladesh is an impoverished South Asian country of more than 140 million that won independence from Pakistan in 1971. The country has a history of both political instability, including coups and counter-coups, and also natural disasters such as cyclones and flooding.

In January 2007, violent street clashes between members of rival parties prompted the army-backed caretaker government to declare an emergency. That government promised to act against corruption and attempted to encourage a third party. But human rights groups said it also arrested people arbitrarily.

"The key problem is partly low pays and benefits, but more importantly the fact that command and control of the paramilitary force is in the hands of the army. Over the years this may have led to a problem of 'we versus they,' " said Iftekhar Zaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, a government watchdog group.

"It is hard and indeed too early to comment about its implication for stability of the country, but mutiny in a paramilitary force is definitely not a good news. If it is not effectively addressed -- perhaps by direct involvement of the prime minister -- it can turn out to be highly destabilizing." #

Emily Wax is Washington Post’s New Delhi bureau First published in the Washington Post, February 25, 2009; 10:33 AM

Border guards launch mutiny in Bangladesh capital

Al Jazeerah TV Photo: Civilians around the para-military head quarters were injured and caried away by neighbours

Al Jazeera Reports that 11 officers have been killed and 60 people are currently hostage

A fierce gun battle has broken out inside the headquarters of Bangladesh's border security force in the capital Dhaka, police say.

"There has been a huge exchange of gunfire at BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) headquarters complex this morning. We have heard mortar fire," Nabojit Khisa, a local police chief, said on Wednesday

"The gunfire is still going on. We are not allowed to enter," he added, declining to comment on speculation that the cause of the fighting was a mutiny within the force.

The Bangladesh Rifles are headquartered in the Bangladeshi capital's Pilkhana area.
Officials said that the army has been called in to bring the situation under control.

Nicholas Haque, reporting for Al Jazeera from Dhaka, said there had been heavy fighting since the morning.

"The fighting broke out, apparently, this morning during a meeting between junior and senior officers. There is panic on the streets right now. No-one is clear about what's happening," he said.

"They [a suspected paramilitary group] are shooting into civilian crowds around them.... it's a very terrible reminder of what happened years ago when there was a coup.

'Mutiny over pay'
"Fighting continues in the compound. There is no security, no police, there is no-one outside the compound... there are just civilians... apart from the army pointing their guns towards civilians."

Private TV stations Bangla Vision and ETV, reporting live from the scene, said the guards came out of their barracks and seized a conference hall where officers were meeting.

The report said troops of the Bangladesh Rifles chanted slogans for more pay and better facilities.

Several bystanders outside the complex were injured and taken to state-run Dhaka Medical College Hospital, ETV reported.

Some of the troops also stormed out of the complex and seized a nearby shopping mall, ETV added.

The fighting occurred a day after Sheikh Hasina, the newly elected prime minister, visited the headquarters and addressed the troops, urging them to become "more disciplined and remain ever ready to guard the country's frontiers".

Bangladesh has had a history of military coups and uprisings.Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh's first elected president and the father of Hasina, was killed along with several of his family members in 1975.

The country, which secured its independence from Pakistan in 1971, has also experienced long spells of military rule. #

Reports Al Jazeerah TV, AFP, AP wire service

Monday, February 23, 2009

Victims of brutality: women in Bangladesh

Photo: Julain Francis


UNITED NATIONS has titled “Women and men united to end violence against women and girls” the theme for International women’s day 2009. International women’s day was started as a political event and blended in the culture in many countries of the world. Only 24 women have been elected heads of state or government in this century. It’s a matter of virtual achievement that Bangladesh has honored with two women leader Sheikh Hasina Wazed and Begum Khaleda Zia.

After 35 years of independence of Bangladesh and Begum Khaleda Zia has ruled the country for about 10 years (longest period). She has been elected to five separate parliamentary constituencies in the general elections of 1991, 1996, and 2001, a feat unachieved by any other politician in Bangladeshi history.

Sheikh Hasina's party defeated Begum Khaleda Zia's BNP in the 2008 Parliamentary Elections. Her party achieved a landslide victory reminiscent to the 1971 elections of Pakistan. Under her leadership, the party has achieved a supermajority in parliament, controlling 230 seats out of 299. Sheikh Hasina Wazed is the present prime minister of Bangladesh. Both of them have served as the head of the state for different period. If you look at the other side of coin you will easily realize the situation of the women’s in Bangladesh.

Different false extortion and murder case was filed by politically motivated the Bangladesh police during the military backed interim government against Sheikh Hasina Wazed. The military backed interim government subsequently prevents Hasina and issued ban to return to her own motherland.

The military backed interim government arrested Sheikh Hasina wazed with ulterior motive to draw portrait of Pakistan to force her to into political exile. The progressive concern all over the world protested on her arrest.

On June 11, 2008 Hasina was released on parole for medical reasons and the next day she flew to the United States to be treated for hearing impairment, eye problems and high blood pressure. Prof. Syed Modasser Ali, her personal physician, threatened to sue the caretaker government over negligence regarding Hasina's treatment during her detention.

On September 2, 2007, a case was filed against Zia by the interim government for corruption regarding the awarding of contracts to Global Agro Trade Company in 2003, and on September 3, 2007 she was arrested. On government’s executive order Zia was released later.

Although the Islam always pritirize women and give honor to women that is cleraifed in Sura Al-Baqarah, verse.282 in the Holy Quran the Islamic facist has questioned the women leadership and manily targeted Sheikh Hasina Wazed.

On August 21, 2004, a murderous attack took place on Sheikh Hasina while she was addressing a public rally in Dhaka. In this incident 23 people were killed. One of the victims was Ivy Rahman, a close associate of Sheikh Hasina. Sheikh Hasina herself narrowly escaped with some injuries. Until now she is carryuing the injuries in her body and she become nearly deaf.

In past election campaign Hsian and Khaleda Zia campaign under foolproof security arrangements and moved with the high security of Special Security Force (SSF) with fear of beign of targeted by the Islamic fascist. The top women leaders are paying the price of Islamization of Bangladesh indeed. The transition to democracy is always jeopardized by Islamic fascists with a demand of Islamic theocracy.

On year 2008, country wide 518 cases of Violence against women claimed according to a survey report released by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights organisation, reported by “The daily star “on 2009-01-01.

Of the victims, 172 women were killed over dowry and 246 in domestic violence while 83 killed after rape. The list also includes 17 female domestic helps. Besides, 367 more women were raped and eight of them committed suicide during the one-year period. Two domestic helps also committed suicide. Also, 20 women fell victim to fatwa (religious edict).

Violence against women is becoming more and more of a common and widespread issue across the country. The legal process to combat gender-based violence is complicated. Some of the major ones are: physical violence, sexual harassment, trafficking/kidnapping, acid attack, dowry, wife battering, fatwa, eve teasing, murder, rape, gang rape and many more. State intervention towards preventing violence against women is inadequate till date. The minority women and children are always victimized by the Islamic fascist where the government has failed to secure the rights of minority women and children. Although government has signed different International convention and introduce special law to protect the women and children the government always failed to secure the women and children. As a result we saw the women and children become victim of brutality in Bangladesh. When two begums were victimized, uncounted ill fated are crying for justice. #

William Nicholas Gomes [cda.exe@gmail] is an independent human rights activist, a Catholic ecumenical activist, and a political analyst. He is also the Executive Director of the Christian Development Alternative (CDA), a national organization against torture and human rights violations.

Dreaming of a better day for Bangladesh


“BEWARE OF Bangladesh” was the cover title of the April 4, 2002 issue of Hong Kong-based magazine The Far Eastern Economic Review. This is the same Bangladesh that came out of a costly nine-month-long liberation war against the Islamic fascist and brutal junta of Pakistan in 1971. The newborn nation was fully inspired by a “non-communal” spirit, meaning one unbiased against Hindus.

But the joy of liberation was tarnished by a struggle with the remaining Pakistani-created “vested quarter” of Al-Shams and Al-Badr forces. Slowly, the vested quarter entered into the core of the policy making. The country faced horrible tragedy from 1975 onward, with the restoration of military rule. The founding father of the nation was killed by army officials, and the nation stepped into a new tragedy.

That was beginning of a new era in the history of Bangladesh. The constitution was amended many times afterward and the agenda of the vested quarter was fulfilled. The secular entity of Bangladesh ceased to exist, and a new entity that could be titled “Bloody Bismillah” was created. That was the foundation upon which the slow poison of political Islam began its entry into the land of peace. I want to recall a quote by the great Roman philosopher Seneca: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false and by the rulers as useful.”

In Bangladesh, religion is indeed highly useful for all forms of politicians, on both the left and the right. The secular writer Taslima Nasrin was forced to leave the country by Islamic fascists. The free thinker Dr. Goni Gomez was killed by the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the nation was shocked by the bomb blasts carried out by Islamic fascists in almost all the districts. These are the results of the Islamisation of Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, the minorities live under threat all the time from extreme followers of Islam. We want to dream of a day when we will be able to worship on Christmas day without needing police security and without the fear of any bomb blasts. We want to dream of a day when Bangladesh will be free of corruption and when we will be free from poverty. We want to dream of a day when the people of all religions will sing the song of peace and harmony together and work together for a better Bangladesh. We want to dream of a better Bangladesh. We don’t want to see any title saying “Beware of Bangladesh,” but rather we want to see one saying “Bangladesh, a unique example of peace and prosperity." #

William Gomes ( is an independent human rights activist, a Catholic ecumenical activist, and a political analyst. He is also the Executive Director of the Christian Development Alternative (CDA), a national organization against torture and human rights violations.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why Arabs hates migrants from Bangladesh, India & Pakistan?

"Why is there so much hate inside us?"


IN THE shop next to my house, there is a home delivery service which is run by an Indian. He is a good man, hardworking and devoted to his job. I talk to him whenever he delivers something to my house and he talks to me about the time he spent working in Abu Dhabi and of his dream to live in London.

Last week I asked him to deliver a newspaper to my house. When he delivered it to me, he asked me whether I wrote in it. I told him that I did and he asked me to write about why young Saudis hate foreign workers, particularly Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. He asked, “Why do they throw rocks at us when they see us in the street?” He said that in India they were taught to love others because that is the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). I was moved by his words and promised him that I would write on the subject.

I took his question to my students and started a discussion in class. The students agreed that they had harassed foreigners, particularly South Asians, in the street. One said that seeing a worker in the street was a perfect chance for them to beat him up and then run away. Some admitted searching for foreign workers to beat up, throw eggs at and generally abuse. I asked my students why they behaved in this way, what was the reason. Some said it was just fun, nothing more or less. Some said it was because those people were weak and unable to fight back. Some said that their favorite pastime was to catch cats, kill them and skin them. I was shocked and disturbed by all this violence and wondered what was causing it.

The classroom discussion ended but my questions would not go away. Is this violence only committed by children or can we see it at other levels in other forms? How do older people deal with foreign workers? Do the workers feel that we respect them? Sadly, the rude and sarcastic way we often refer to them sprang to my mind. Can such relationships be called humane? Are they based on equality? Are they in keeping with the tenets of Islam?

Do we adult Saudis who sponsor and employ foreigners fulfill the conditions of their contracts — which both we and they have signed? How many housemaids never get a day off?

I remember a worker in the school where I work who was on the job every day and who had not been paid for six months. I remember another unpaid worker who asked humbly and politely for his dues and received nothing but curses and insults. It seems to me that our children’s violent behavior has its origins and roots in the behavior and attitudes of adults. My Indian friend’s question should have thus been directed toward all ages and not just at the young.

Are these things related to education? Can we blame this shameful behavior on a lack of education? The answer came all too quickly to my head. I remembered one of my colleagues, a teacher who belongs to a certain tribe. He believes that a student lacking a tribal name is a man with no roots and hence of no importance. Then I remembered a preacher who visited the school after 9/11 and warned the students against dealing with non-Muslims. I also remember a sheikh in a mosque who would not allow a foreigner to pray next to him — simply because the man was not Saudi.

It is not difficult to come up with examples of our relations with people in our country who belong to different religions and cultures. And I will not discuss our own relations with other Saudis. Many of us will not allow our daughters to marry someone just because he is from a certain place or because, for some reason, we look down on him. Behind all these examples are beliefs and thoughts toward “others” which glorify us and our egos and degrade them and theirs. Such a situation is fertile ground for the idea of hate and infertile ground for the idea of love.

Those brought up to love people will not throw rocks at them and curse them. Those brought up to love people will not degrade those who are different from them? Where is love in our lives? Has it given way to hate? What answer can I give my Indian friend? Is he going to understand that it will take a long time to change this culture of hate? I do not think that it will be easy since so many of us do not want to and so many believe they are unique and the best in the world. I remember when I was in England last summer, arriving at the front door of the house where I was staying. I saw a little girl standing outside the house next to mine. I wondered if she would curse me or throw stones at me or whether she would just look away in disgust. Instead, she carried on watering the flowers in the small garden; then she looked up and waved at me, with a big smile on her face. Could that have happened here? #

First published in Arab News (a leading English Language Daily from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), March 27, 2006

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Freedom Fighter or Terrorist? The US Can't Decide about Bangladeshi Immigrant Sachin Karmakar

Photo: Willie Davis - Sachin Karmakar’s application for asylum was granted in only 13days. But now the government considers him a terrorist 

Welcome to America, freedom fighter. Now go stuff yourself 
 IN THE spring of 1971, Sachin Karmakar was a 19-year-old college student who found himself swept up in the short and bloody war that marked the birth of the nation of Bangladesh. Before it could secede from Pakistan, the fledgling nation was subject to a brutal crackdown by the Pakistani army, resulting in the death of 3 million Bangladeshis. The country's Hindu minority was especially vulnerable to attack. Ten million fled to India. Karmakar's father, a Hindu, was among the slain. Karmakar remembers traveling by foot to India on a highway strewn with beheaded and mutilated corpses. Like many other students, he had joined the Mukti Bahini, a pro-independence group whose name translates to "freedom fighters." By the end of the year, India had sent thousands of troops to help, and the People's Republic of Bangladesh was born. In the following decade, Karmakar became a captain in the Bangladeshi national army and a wealthy importer of Australian wheat. He also became well-known in the country as a leading advocate for the nation's religious minorities. In 2001, when radical Islamists came to power in Bangladesh, Karmakar again found himself in danger. Vigilante groups targeted Hindus and Buddhists for rape and murder. Karmakar himself was threatened with death by the local police; his mansion and office were ransacked; and the president of the country eventually declared him to be the equivalent of an enemy of the state. Karmakar was told by the national police chief that if he didn't leave Bangladesh, he'd be jailed. He knew that jail meant torture, even death. Within a week after receiving that warning, Karmakar had moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, leaving behind a wife and daughter. "I'd sooner jump off the Empire State Building than live in another Muslim country," he says. Karmakar's persecution by radical Islamists and his long record of promoting the rights of religious minorities were both so well-documented that his request for political asylum in the United States was approved just 13 days after he applied for it. His case officer, he says, told him it was the fastest approval she'd ever granted. Which helps explain why Karmakar was so shocked when he received a letter in February that informed him that the government intended to deny him a "green card," the permit necessary for him to live and work permanently in the U.S. and to apply for citizenship. The reason? Because he had been a member of Mukti Bahini, an "undesignated terrorist organization," said the letter from an immigration official in Texas. The irony was not lost on Karmakar. The government intended to deny him a green card for having been a freedom fighter, which was part of the reason he was welcomed into this country in the first place. A day after Karmakar received his notice, a similar letter arrived at the Bronx home of an Afghani restaurant owner named Mohammed Rasul. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Rasul was working in his father's clothing shop in Kandahar and getting ready to finish high school. After the invasion, all he remembers is fighting. Homegrown groups of Muslim freedom fighters, called "mujahideen," formed to fight the Russians, whom they saw as illegitimate occupiers. The mujahideen enjoyed widespread support in Afghanistan—and significant financial and military backing from the United States. For years, Rasul recalls, not a day passed that a violent skirmish didn't break out on the street. Rasul says people had no choice: If you didn't join the Soviet army, you could be killed. But if you joined, the mujahideen might kill you. "We were always afraid," says Rasul, now 50. "Anyone who could get out, did." Rasul says he was never a fighter, but when the mujahideen emerged from their hideouts in the hills and came to town, his father would give them clothes, money, and food. In 1985, Rasul came to the U.S., in part with the help of an American policy that aided the immigration of people who had been part of U.S.-backed anti-communist struggles. Two years later, Rasul took over Colony Fried Chicken, a storefront in the South Bronx, from another Afghani. He applied for asylum, but didn't get it until 1998, after the Taliban had come to power in Afghanistan. An immigration officer determined that because Rasul had supported the mujahideen, his life would be in danger in a Taliban-run state. After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. overthrew the Taliban regime and installed a former mujahideen fighter, Hamid Karzai, to lead the country's transitional government. Rasul opened his letter when he got back home after working the 12-hour shift he does six days a week. Like Karmakar, he learned that he was being denied a green card. The reason? His support of the mujahideen, which immigration officers deemed "terrorist activity." Rasul, struggling with English, tries to explain the letter's twisted logic. Before, he had been rewarded for helping the mujahideen. "Now, mujahideen is terrorist?" he asks. "Is Mr. Karzai terrorist?" Karmakar and Rasul weren't alone. In February, a similar case had received national attention: The Washington Post profiled an Iraqi Kurd who had worked as a translator for the U.S. army, was granted a special visa to enter the U.S., but was then denied a green card. And now, more information is surfacing about how many other people are caught in this strange catch-22. In September, the Department of Homeland Security—which oversees Immigration Services—told human rights advocates that about 400 people who had come to the U.S. from places around the world, and had been granted the protection of asylum or refugee status, were now being denied green cards because of information contained in their asylum applications. In other words, these refugees from around the world were being denied green cards based on the same information that had won them asylum to begin with. Many of the refugees had taken up arms against their leaders in U.S.-supported struggles: A Cuban who tried to overthrow the Castro regime was denied a green card for being a member of "a counterrevolutionary group"; others—such as members of the Democratic Unionist Party of Sudan, a partner in U.S. negotiations in the war-torn region—had been persecuted for their involvement in democratic opposition movements to dictatorial regimes; the Montagnards and the Hmong, who had fought for the U.S. during the Cold War, suddenly became terrorists—even though, just two months before, Congress had specifically issued a waiver for these ethnic groups. Some people weren't actually members of any political group at all: An Afghani in Long Island was denied a green card because he had noted on his asylum application, filed more than a decade prior, that he had "scrubbed pots and pans" for the mujahideen. "People's hearts were stopping," says Anwen Hughes, senior counsel for Human Rights First. For days after the round of letters hit mailboxes around the country, she fielded nonstop calls from immigrants and their lawyers. "These are law-abiding people who have been here for years," says Melanie Nezer, an attorney with the refugee-rights group HIAS of America. "These are people we've already put through our procedures and our security clearances, and we decided that they had been persecuted. We gave them asylum and said, 'Welcome to the United States.' And now, our new law calls them terrorists, and we can't figure out how to remove the label." Today, most of the people who received letters earlier this year are still in a kind of legal limbo. They've been put there by a government definition of "terrorism" that is so broad that it conflicts with other U.S. foreign policy priorities and, as a circuit court judge put it in 2006, "sweeps in not only the big guy, but also the little guy who poses no risk to anyone." Ironically, this circuit court judge's decision was cited in Sachin Karmakar's letter, as if someone in Immigration Services knew that what he was doing made little sense, but could do nothing about it. Sachin Karmakar is in his tiny office below an East Village photocopy center. Stacks of Joy Bangla, a weekly newspaper that he started publishing last January, are piled up on the left corner of his desk, as are unopened envelopes containing letters from avid readers. Like many Bangladeshis, the small 57-year-old is a political junkie who reads about a dozen local newspapers each day. Using a print shop owned by ultra-Orthodox Jews, Karmakar distributes about 2,000 copies each week and leaves them in the storefronts and restaurants of Jackson Heights. In addition to the standard rundown of community events and Bangladeshi politics, the pages of Joy Bangla are filled with information about a single topic: the evils of Muslim fundamentalism. Karmakar includes news briefs identifying the connections between senior Bangladeshi politicians and homegrown militant groups. He pens editorials encouraging the residents of Jackson Heights to do things like oppose the OPEC cartel (it funds terrorism) and stand up for the State of Israel (a bastion of democracy in an extremist region). Because of his views on terrorism, he has spoken on a panel sponsored by conservative think tank America's Truth Forum with former CIA director James Woolsey. Karmakar picks up the letter from Homeland Security and repeats the reasons given for his denial: He has "received military training"; he has "fought with the intention to cause death or serious bodily injury to the Pakistani army." He is shocked: Apparently, those were terrorist acts. "I was in a war zone. There was no place to be neutral," he says. "I am being punished for exercising my God-given right to defend myself." And he can't understand why being a member of a group that had disbanded decades ago would disqualify him for a green card now. "For a person who has taken a stand against a barbaric form of fundamentalist Islam, it's a pretty insulting letter to get," he adds. An ardent supporter of America and its institutions, Karmakar was looking forward to getting his green card and starting the process of becoming a citizen. Receiving the letter hasn't dampened his faith in the country, but his first reaction, he admits, was to suspect that somehow Muslim fundamentalists had managed to sabotage the immigration process. He's since changed his mind. "This whole thing is just some mistake," he says. But he doesn't sound entirely sure about it. The U.S. government's definition of "terrorism" has always been broad. In the Immigration Act of 1990, terrorists were considered to be anyone who used a "firearm, explosive, or dangerous device" to "endanger the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property." After the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act and made the definition more complex, dividing terrorist groups into three categories. Tier I and Tier II are well-known terrorist groups, such as the FARC of Columbia, Al Qaeda, or the Taliban. The list of groups is available on a public State Department list. Then, there are the Tier III "undesignated groups," whose names are not listed anywhere. As Tier III is defined, any "two or more individuals . . . whether organized or not" can be considered a terrorist group, and Homeland Security has the right to make decisions about the groups in an ad hoc fashion. (Hughes, the Human Rights First attorney, points out that the definition is so loose that a victim of domestic violence who used a weapon against her attacker could qualify as a terrorist.) As Karmakar and Rasul discovered in February, some DHS officers at service centers in Nebraska and Texas decided that the Bengali Mukti and the mujahideen were Tier III terrorist groups. The Tier III clause is only one part of the Patriot Act that has ended up causing major problems for people fleeing persecution: The law also says that anyone who provided a type of "material support" to a terrorist organization could be labeled a terrorist and be denied admission to the country on those grounds. This includes people who were forced to give support, such as a nurse from Colombia who was denied asylum because she had been kidnapped by paramilitary FARC guerillas who had forced her, at gunpoint, to give medical care to the wounded. In 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which made the Patriot Act even stricter: A person can now be deported for giving that kind of support. After protests from human rights groups, Homeland Security decided last December that it would make an exception for people who were extorted by Tier I groups like the FARC (but not the Taliban or Al Qaeda, for some reason). But that leaves out cases like the one of a Sri Lankan man who was kidnapped by the Tamil Tigers and forced to pay a ransom, and who is now tied up in court on the grounds that he gave material support to a known terrorist organization. "If this were really a national security concern, I would understand," Nezer says. "But there's not one person who thinks that any of these people are a threat. Not even [Homeland Security]. If they did, they would be charging and arresting them." Advocates say the piecemeal approach—by which people are charged with terrorism and then, when they protest it, are told that the government will go back and look to see if a mistake was made—is bogging down the entire immigration system. They say the obsession with definitions is having real human consequences: Individuals being persecuted by their governments are barred from entering the country as refugees. And people like Karmakar and Rasul, who haven't seen family members in years, cannot bring them to the U.S. or visit them without hurdles. For the first time since moving to America, Karmakar says he felt his rights were being threatened in a way that reminded him of what happened to him back in Bangladesh. Just over a year ago, a high-level DHS official, Igor Timofeyev, promised Congress that the problems with refugees and asylees would be resolved "in three weeks." "I honestly thought this would take a couple months to iron out," explains Nezer, who started advocating against the broadened definitions of terrorism four years ago. "But it's gotten more and more absurd, and the number of groups just keeps growing." For Ali Riaz, a Bangladeshi expert at Illinois State University, Karmakar's so-called mistake is going to have serious consequences for foreign policy. "If part of the U.S. government is describing what happened in 1971 as a terrorist act, it is going to be a major issue in Bangladesh," he says. "It's practically questioning the very existence of Bangladesh and compromising the relationship with the third-largest Muslim country in the world. If Georgians fought back from Russia, would the U.S. government call it a terrorist act? Because the same thing happened 30 years ago in Bangladesh. If Homeland Security thinks there is no repercussion for this outside the United States, they are living in a fool's paradise." Responding to protests and congressional testimony from human rights organizations, in December 2007, Congress voted to give Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff the authority to make exceptions for some groups that were getting caught in the categories. The exceptions were arbitrary: The Hmong and some anti-Castro fighters were included in the July waiver; mujahideen were not. Homeland Security reports that it has issued waivers to around 7,500 people, many of whom only got the waivers after they had already been denied green cards or asylum because of their supposed terrorist activity. Then, in February, DHS sent out a blast of letters to people who were already refugees and asylees. In April, the government agreed to reopen the cases. In July, 10 more groups got exceptions, and the government admitted that the majority of people who got letters would have been eligible for them. In September, advocates met with high-level officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of Homeland Security. Nezer, who was present at the meeting, which was attended by around 20 people, says officials told her the cases were still held up and that there was no foreseeable end in sight. She says that officials in Immigration Services appear to understand the problem, and she suspects that the stalemate is coming directly from higher levels in the refugee policy department of Homeland Security. "We have to make sure that our national security interests are at the forefront of everything we do, but we are committed to keeping our asylum and refugee processing system open for the intended purpose that it was instated, and that our humanitarian concerns and the goodwill of this nation will move forward," says Chris Rhatigan, USCIS spokeswoman. Asked whether these two purposes have ever been at odds, Rhatigan said that wasn't the case, but added that the government must err on the side of caution. When questioned as to whether the government didn't already have the information needed to judge affiliations prior to denying green cards to hundreds of people, Rhatigan explained that the process involves discussions with the State Department. (Partha Mazumdar, a State Department expert on Bangladesh, says that the United States has never considered the Mukti Bahini to be a terrorist organization.) "We're told that making decisions about these groups is a very long and difficult process," Nezer says. "For the Montagnard waiver, they told us, in meeting after meeting, 'This is very complicated.' And then when the waiver comes out, it's a paragraph long." Nezer believes that the problem is much simpler than the government admits and could easily be solved—the new Obama administration could fix things in less than a month, if it wants to. Mohammed Rasul is serving fried chicken to his customers in the South Bronx. They stream in steadily throughout the day—high-schoolers on their lunch break, moms, older folk lounging around the sidewalk. Mostly everyone is African-American. They order from a menu that is displayed along the wall and organized into sections: chicken nuggets, chicken combo, chicken breast, and just chicken. "I used to have a people problem, but now I have a government problem," says Rasul, 50. He serves the chicken in paper boxes with American flag decorations, passing it under a Plexiglas wall that divides the tidy kitchen from the waiting area on the other side of the counter. By "people problem," he's referring to when he first took over the restaurant, when drug dealers would loiter in front of the store and often toss beer bottles into the windows. When the word "Taliban" came into the American vocabulary, people called him that, too. But now, he feels he has won the neighborhood's trust. He knows many customers' orders by heart, and if an order takes too long in the kitchen, he'll usually throw an extra piece of chicken into the box. He belongs to a union and wakes up early to take his kids to a special-education elementary school in Queens. Since he received his letter from Homeland Security, he says, his nerves are shot. "I don't know what's going on with that American government. You're thinking I'm terrorist? Where is your witness, and where is your proof? Is it only because my name is Mohammed and my religion is Muslim? I swear I don't know who is Osama. I heard about him on TV." He sits down for a short break between customers. "I work too hard in this country. I'm tired from my life." Unlike Karmakar, it took Rasul 10 years of working through the immigration system to obtain asylum. Now, it seems as if he is starting all over again. "Who is the big man in America who decided this?" asks Rasul. "Where is he so that he can look at me face-to-face? I want him to look in my heart and tell me that I am a criminal." # First published in Village Voice, November 12, 2008

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Does Bangladesh military deserve impunity?


BANGLADESHI MEMBERS of Parliament and the media have been speaking out against the former military-controlled emergency government, now that a new elected government is in place. They are demanding the prosecution of members of the military forces responsible for arresting and detaining high-ranking politicians, and subjecting them to physical and mental torture in custody. Abdul Jalil, general secretary of the Awami League, which is now the ruling party, has demanded a parliamentary probe into such detentions. The veteran politician could not help crying while describing the torture he underwent in a detention center operated by the armed forces. He said around eight armed men had come to his office, blindfolded him and taken him away in a waiting car. They identified themselves as members of the Joint Forces.

Jalil was detained in custody where he was physically and psychologically tortured for five consecutive days. He was later paroled for treatment abroad, and after returning to Bangladesh, managed to get bail from the Supreme Court.

Another member of Parliament, Mahiuddin Khan Alamgir, has also described his arrest and torture in a number of articles, interviews and talk shows. He has declared his intention to sue the chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Lt. Gen. Hassan Mashhud Chowdhury, and other members of the armed forces for torturing and treating him inhumanely in detention.

Barrister Moudud Ahmed – who was minister of law during the former Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led regime and lost his seat in Parliament in the recent election – has also been trying to convince people through the media that he was a victim of brutal torture and degrading treatment in the custody of the armed forces. Moudud also announced that he is writing a book on his life in prison.

However, Moudud’s hue and cry about custodial brutality appears to be aimed at personal or political gain. In fact, Moudud was law minister when the government validated actions of the armed forces during Operation Clean Heart, an 86-day crackdown on political dissenters in late 2002, which resulted in 58 deaths in the custody of the armed forces. The government termed all these deaths as "heart attacks."

More than 10,000 ordinary citizens were illegally arrested, arbitrarily detained and brutally tortured under fabricated charges by the military-dominated law-enforcement agencies. Moudud, as the minister for law, justice and parliamentary affairs, issued an ordinance to ensure blatant impunity to the perpetrators in January 2003, which was then enacted by Parliament.

Moudud and his government ignored the people's fundamental rights, especially the right to life and liberty. Later, he was a victim of the same treatment.

Talking about human rights, as Jalil, Alamgir and Moudud are now doing, is rare in Bangladesh’s political circles. This discussion conveys a message to ordinary victims that some politicians now understand the taste of pain. At the same time, their stories support claims made by human rights defenders that the armed forces and law-enforcement agencies operate torture cells.

The real picture of brutality by the armed forces and the police is much more severe than the stories of these three politicians. Ordinary citizens have long suffered immeasurable atrocities at the hands of the military during the state of emergency and the police during previous regimes.

Now the incumbent law minister, Barrister Shafique Ahmed, is talking about the "doctrine of necessity" as a means of justifying the actions of the military-controlled emergency government. Speaking of the armed forces, he told the media, "You cannot say all their actions or activities were within the bounds of the Constitution …Whatever they did, they did responding to the necessity of the time. So we are not giving legal cover to all their actions, we're not validating all their ordinances."

This raises the question as to whether the illegal arrests, detentions, torture and killings were a "necessity of the time." Are the present politicians ready to accept the armed forces' actions even though they defied the Constitution? Isn’t the so-called "doctrine of necessity" merely an excuse to once again grant impunity to the perpetrators of injustice, with the permission of the present government and at the demand of the armed forces?

It is not convincing that those now in power can accept and explain the former government’s brutal and unconstitutional actions under the "doctrine of necessity." Why can’t people like Moudud and Shafique face the truth behind the recurrent take-over of power by the armed forces?

Will the current batch of politicians also surrender to the armed forces instead of taking effective action to stop such brutality forever? Why is there no effective resistance to keep the soldiers in their barracks?

The door must be closed forever on the armed forces’ ability to take over and abuse power. The ruling party could start now by using its absolute majority in Parliament to criminalize torture and repeal Article 46 of the Constitution, which allows Parliament to grant impunity to state officers for any action, however brutal, taken to “restore order.”

The demand for justice by a few senior members of Parliament has aroused the interest of the people. But ordinary people will treat such demands as mere political rubbish unless the politicians follow through and effectively punish the perpetrators. #

First published in UPI Asia Online, February 10, 2009

Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender based in Hong Kong working at the Asian Human Rights Commission. He is a Bangladeshi national with a degree in literature from a university in Dhaka. He began his career as a journalist in 1990 and engaged in human rights activism at the grassroots level in his country for more than a decade. He also worked as an editor for publications on human rights and socio-cultural issues and contributed to other similar publications

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Good News in Dhaka?

Democracy returns, raising hope that Bangladesh can halt the outflow of immigrants—and terrorists


BANGLADESH IS typically seen as one of the world's worst basket cases. Desperately poor, racked by environmental disasters and plagued by corrupt and ineffective government, its chief export has long been its own people. Every year, several hundred thousand impoverished Bangla-deshis leave home in search of better opportunities abroad. Just last week, a rights group in Bangkok accused the Thai military of forcing up to 1,000 Bangladeshi migrants, who'd attempted to reach the country in flimsy boats, back out to sea, where many of them are believed to have drowned.

Bangladesh has also lately attracted the worried attention of Western security agencies due to the growing Islamic radicalism of its 150 million Muslims. The country has long harbored various insurgent groups seeking independence in India's remote northeast. But in the last few years, it has also begun to play host to a variety of jihadi groups suspected of helping to carry out attacks against both Western and Indian targets, including the 2008 bombings in Jaipur and Delhi.

This month, however, featured some rare good news from Dhaka. Sheikh Hasina, the 61-year-old daughter of the country's slain independence leader, was sworn in as prime minister after an election deemed largely free and fair, signaling Bangladesh's return to democracy after nearly two years under a military-backed caretaker government. It was a remarkable turn: the coup leaders voluntarily ceded control back to the people. Even more impressive, thanks to a series of electoral reforms the caretaker government put in place, Bangladeshi democracy is arguably in far better shape today than it was in 2007, when it was pushed aside.

In the late December election, Hasina's Awami League won a landslide victory with none of the fraud and bloodshed that have marred previous polls and that prompted the army to seize power two years ago. Anti-incumbency was the election's primary theme, says Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a think tank in Dhaka. Both the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which controlled parliament from 2001 through 2006, and the Awami League, which held power from 1996 to 2001, have a history of dirty politics. But the Awami League did a far better job presenting "new faces" this time around, Rahman says. That helped it win an enviable mandate: along with its allies, the League now controls 260 of the parliament's 300 seats.

But Hasina's government faces a daunting array of challenges. The most pressing of these is inflation, which has hovered above 10 percent for much of the year. Forty percent of the country's population lives on less than one dollar a day. And recent price hikes have pushed some four million Bangladeshis back below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Hasina has vowed to lower food costs immediately, and will be helped by slumping global commodity prices. If she can improve food security, that could well convince more of her countrymen to stay put, instead of emigrating.

Yet thanks to other economic woes, the government will be hard-pressed to sustain the food subsidies on which Bangladeshis depend. Exports to the United States and Europe, Bangladesh's biggest overseas markets, have crashed since the recession hit, and remittances from the nine million Bangladeshis working abroad—a key source of the government's hard currency—have plummeted. The World Bank estimates that GDP growth could drop below 5 percent this year, too slow for the country to meet its goal of halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015.

Then there is the looming energy crisis. Bangladesh currently produces enough power to meet just 60 percent of its demand, and recent gas shortages have shuttered factories, dealing a further blow to the teetering economy.

Still, India and Western powers hope the new government will address their other big source of concern: Bangladesh-based terrorism. Analysts argue that the Awami League tilts toward New Delhi and may grant its requests to crack down. And Bangladesh's main Islamist party saw its parliamentary holdings drop from 17 seats to 2 in the December poll, suggesting the public is disillusioned with Islamic radicalism. Hasina may also have a personal motivation to crack down on extremists: one jihadi group tried to assassinate her in 2004.

India, though, is not taking any chances. Earlier this month, New Delhi decided to speed construction of a fence along the two countries' shared 4,000km border—a sign of how far Bangladesh still has to come. #

First published in the NEWSWEEK magazine, February 2, 2009

Spot the difference in Bangladesh


WHILE COUNTING the number of Muslim countries enjoying democracy now, a senior BJP leader on a recent Indian television chat show , failed to count Bangladesh. Barely fifteen days later, the Awami League and its allies won a landslide victory in the recent parliament elections in Bangladesh. In a world torn asunder by religious strife, there has been a tendency to see Pakistan and Bangladesh as two sides of the same coin — failed states steadily undermined by Islamic religious radicalism , that many in Washington and Delhi saw could be held together only by the army and its “moderate Islamic allies.” The election and its aftermath has proved them wrong. The Awami League-led government has fired its first salvo in an attempt to push the Islamic radicals on the defensive — a parliament resolution for trying the “war criminals of 1971” has been unanimously passed. Begum Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was caught in a nutcracker. Voting for the proposal would upset its Islamist allies like the Jamiat-e-Islami, because most of its senior leaders would be facing the trial for collaborating with the Pakistani army in 1971 in its genocidal campaign against freedom-loving Bengalis. Opposing the resolution would undermine their nationalist credentials completely. The BNP lawmakers staged a walkout, opposing the seating arrangement in the parliament , to avoid taking a position on the resolution on the war crimes trial.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also mooted the formation of a South Asian taskforce on terror, a proposal the Jamiat-e-Islami was quick to oppose. Jamiat chief Motiur Rehman Nizami was of the view that Bangladesh should handle terror with its own forces and not do anything to allow “foreign forces “ (read Indian) into the country. Hasina has made it clear that her government will go on an all-out offensive against “all extremist forces” in the country — meaning the Islamic radicals and perhaps the separatist groups from India’s northeast who were used against her party by the BNP government. But while police and military action is required to curb the underground radicals , something like a “war crimes trial” will help destroy the overground godfathers of Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh — legitimate political parties like Jamiat e Islami who provide the overarching platform for such radical activities.

Secular , anti-fundamentalist groups like the Ekattorer Ghatak o Dalal Nirmul Committee led by the late Jahanara Imam and Shariar Kabir have been strongly campaigning for a war crimes trial since the early 1990s. Many feel Bangladesh may be pushed into civil war if this trial starts, because it will reopen the wounds of 1971. But secular intellectuals and political leaders in Bangladesh argue that a war crimes trial is the only way to permanently demolish the “evil forces of Pakistan-style Islamic radicalism.”

This is what many in Washington and Delhi never understood. Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh cannot be tackled by US Marines or drones — or for that matter by Indian surgical strikes. It has to be fought by homegrown secular forces with the unstinted backing of the international community. They never understood that Bangladesh is not Pakistan. It is a society where, even in the 2001 election that brought Begum and Jamiat to power, the Awami League remained the single largest party in terms of voteshare — 40.8 per cent. To treat Bangladesh and Pakistan as parts of the same coin just because they are Muslim nations is to treat, to use a Bengali idiom, Tagore and a bearded goat as the same because both have beards.

The tragedy of post-1971 Bangladesh is that its people have rarely been able to vote freely. After 21 years of military rule following the assassination of the founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the army and its intelligence continued to manipulate elections. The Awami League managed to beat that jinx in 1996 but despite ensuring food security for the first time in Bangladesh’s recent history, it could not come back to power. In 2001, the BNP-Jamiat unleashed a terror campaign against Hindus and forced most of them to stay away from voting. With full military backing and tacit support from the interim government , the BNP-Jamiat’s violent campaign won the day for the coalition. Unlike their Bengali Communist brothers across the border, the Awami League had failed to build a party machinery to withstand terror and run the elections.

The December 2008 polls were fair and the army was non-partisan for the first time in post-1975 Bangladesh. Analyts argue that the huge induction of young voters also tilted the balance in favour of the Awami League and its version of a secular democracy. Begum Zia and her Islamist allies got barely one-tenth of the parliament seat, their appeal to vote for them to save Islam fell on deaf ears. Bangladesh is the most homogenous nation-state in post-colonial South Asia. Its population is predominantly Muslim, so most Bangladeshis don’t buy the “Islam in danger” thesis.

However , when the Islamic groups killing secular intellectuals and judges, attack Bengali New Year day celebrations or Bengali cultural groups like the Udichi , or they explode 450 bombs in as many locations in a day, most Bangladeshis fear their “Bengali identity”, on the bedrock of which the nation was created, is threatened. The December 2008 mandate is clear — Bangladesh should not be turned into another Pakistan at any cost.

So, with such a huge mandate, the Awami League is now in a position to pursue the war crimes trial and snuff out the embers of Islamic radicalism, despite obvious patronage from Pakistan and the Middle Eastern nations, who provide huge funds to groups like the Jamiat e Islami. India cannot expect Bangladesh to be a restaurant waiter — to take orders and deliver it on a platter. Delhi has to engage Dhaka in constant dialogue to pursue its own economic and security interests and be patient if it wants to achieve them. #

First published in the Indian Express, February 10, 2009

Subir Baumik is BBC’ s eastern India correspondent

Hasina moves house after death threats

Indo-Asian News Service

BANGLADESH PRIME Minister Sheikh Hasina has moved residence and curtailed her movements after international intelligence agencies warned of a possible threat to her life.

Some of her official programmes were curtailed on Friday and she moved to the state guest house Jamuna from Sudha Sadan, her private home in a residential area, for better protection, The Daily Star newspaper said on Saturday.

It quoted unnamed sources as saying that the prime minister will be staying in Jamuna for about six to seven months till her official residence, Gono Bhaban, is renovated and readied for use.

There have been at least three known attempts on Hasina's life in recent years.

This time, the intelligence tip-offs came from the US, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, the newspaper said, quoting unnamed Bangladeshi sleuths.

Hasina could be under threat from international terrorist organisations who are in league with local extremist groups, it said. The names of the outfits were not disclosed.

Two ministers and intelligence sources reportedly said that the month of February is especially crucial.

Following the threat alert, all scheduled outdoor programmes of the prime minister were immediately curtailed.

The international intelligence sources informed Commerce Minister Faruk Khan and Foreign Minister Dipu Moni about the threat.

"She is a target, and there is no doubt about it," a senior official of a domestic intelligence agency said.

Indian intelligence agencies had earlier informed Hasina that a suicide squad of a militant group, trained by an intelligence agency of a South Asian country, planned to assassinate her before the Dec 29, 2008, polls.

An official involved in anti-terrorism work said the security of the prime minister would be rearranged soon, and "some sophisticated security apparatus will be incorporated, especially for occasions when she will be attending outdoor events".

Minister of State for Home Affairs Tanjim Ahmed Sohel Taj said they are assessing the intelligence inputs and taking measures to ensure foolproof security for the prime minister.

"We are always alert, since attempts were made on her life in the past," Sohel Taj told the newspaper.

Political associates and officials have been telling Hasina that a private residence was being considered unsafe for her by her security officials ever since her Awami League party romped home in the recent parliamentary elections.

Senior government officials said the fresh threat came after the Awami League-led government expedited its efforts to try the country's war criminals, which was one of the major election pledges of the party.

A section of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, who were allegedly involved in war crimes during the 1971 liberation struggle, are also said to maintain close connections with Pakistan and some Middle Eastern countries.

Saying that attempts were made on Sheikh Hasina's life at least 21 times, Minister Faruk Khan added, "We will foil any attempt on her life with the support of the people."

In the run up to the polls, Hasina had been warned by security and intelligence agencies of possible attempts on her life by Islamist terrorist groups including the banned Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJi), and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). #

First published in the Hindustan Times, India, Dhaka, February 07, 2009

Monday, February 09, 2009

Bowring: Neighbors who should be friends


A GOODWILL visit by a foreign minister to a neighboring country is not normally noteworthy, but the Indian foreign minister's trip to Bangladesh on Monday could mark a turn toward better relations between the neighboring countries, with benefits for all South Asia.

The immediate occasion for Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee's visit was the victory of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League in the recent Bangladesh election, which was very warmly received in Delhi.

The Awami League has always been friendlier to India than the opposition parties, and Hasina has personal links to the Gandhi family. Beyond that is an alignment of forces telling both sides that they need to stop sniping and start cooperating.

At the broadest level, there is a growing recognition in India's leadership that a rising India needs to foster cooperation with its neighbors, and not to view their weaknesses as its advantage.

In the long run, India's relationship with its eastern neighbor of 150 million people may become as important as the relationship with Pakistan, not least because Bangladesh is crucial to resolving the isolation and insurgencies in India's seven North-East states.

More immediately, if India cannot have cooperative relations with a moderate, secular and democratic Muslim country with which it has no insoluble conflicts of interest, it has scant hope for coexistence with Pakistan or wider cooperation in a South Asia notorious for its lack of economic integration.

Given its growing global stature, India should seek to be a benign rather than overbearing regional leader, especially since security infections can spread from unstable and unhappy neighbors into India.

For Bangladesh, there are pressing economic reasons to escape from old notions that cooperation will lead to Indian dominance. Bangladesh may deem it unfortunate that it is surrounded by India on all sides except for a small border with Myanmar, a far from ideal neighbor.

But with garment exports and worker remittances - the props of Bangladesh's economy - now vulnerable to the global crisis, realism needs to supplant the politicking which has frustrated economic relations with fast-growing India.

For India, security issues have taken top priority in the wake of the Mumbai bombing. While Indians have often exaggerated the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh, Dhaka has sometimes been complacent in the face of a small extremist fringe which is known to have overseas links.

Hasina has herself been the target of terrorist bombs, so she is more willing than previous governments to discuss security cooperation. Bangladesh could also become more proactive in preventing Indian insurgents from using its territory as a safe haven. But India must accept that the 4,000-kilometer border will remain porous, and that it cannot blame others for all its security problems.

On the economic front, Bangladesh, which has a huge trade deficit with India, badly needs India to remove a host of tariffs and other barriers to its goods. Given the relative size of the two economies, these barriers are a political tool, not an economic necessity.

In turn, Bangladesh must end its resistance to the transit of goods to India's northeastern states. An agreement on this has never been implemented, depriving Bangladesh not only of transit fees but of an opportunity to become a hub for trade with northeastern India and Southeast Asia. The World Bank and other agencies are eager to support road, rail and port projects if political obstacles are removed.

Fear of Indian domination has also led Bangladesh to refuse to allow Myanmar gas to be piped across its territory to India and to export its own gas and coal to India. A mix of Bangladeshi fears and Indian trade barriers have also deterred Indian investment in Bangladeshi manufacturing, and general lack of cooperation has prevented Nepal and Bhutan hydro power from being harnessed for sale to Bangladesh and India.

For the long term, Bangladesh badly needs a more cooperative attitude from India if the damage inflicted by climate change - most notably rising sea levels - are to be addressed. Lying at the downstream end of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, Bangladesh is uniquely exposed. But as the headwaters of these and other major rivers are controlled by China, India too is vulnerable to lack of international cooperation.

Years of mutual distrust are not easily erased. But there are plenty of tradeoffs that can be made now. A change of attitude in Dhaka has already been reflected in official speeches, but Bangladesh will probably need some generous gestures from India, notably on trade, if Hasina's government is to overcome nationalist opposition to substantive progress.

As for India, it would do well to devote a quarter the energy its spends on Pakistan and Kashmir to the issues of Bangladesh and the northeast states. #
First published in the International Herald Tribune, February 5, 2009 Philip Bowring reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Bangladesh War of Independence: A Moral Issue


In 1971, the Bengalis of East Pakistan had to stand up against the West Pakistani military junta’s indiscriminate attacks and declare independence. However, until today, the Pakistani government has not apologized for its crimes against humanity and there are a small number of people in Bangladesh who do not consider the crackdown on 25 March 1971 a wrongful act. It seems that some people of the country are still not sure about how to characterise the liberation war of Bangladesh. This article distinguishes and separates the meanings of two behavioural actions – a political action and a moral action. These two types of actions have been examined here in terms of Bangladesh’s socio-political history.

EVERY YEAR on 16 December, the people of Bangladesh celebrate Victory Day. In 1971 on this day Pakistani soldiers surrendered to the Joint Command of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini (Bangladesh Liberation Army) after committing atrocities for nine months against the people of East Pakistan. Along with all the celebrations, another debate continues and that is about the roles different people performed during the occupation period.

With the surrender of the Pakistani army, an ugly chapter ended and a new one began for the people of East Pakistan. However, misconceptions about the resistance movement that was popularly known as Mukti Judho, abound. Many Bangladeshis still seem unsure about how to characterise the war of liberation and how to deal with those who actively participated against it and those who killed innocent civilians. All these issues need to be addressed by the people of Bangladesh and resolved so that the controversy is set to rest once and for all.

In the last 37 years the country has progressed in many areas, except perhaps the political arena. Ironically, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he has set up received the Nobel Prize for Peace even as political rivalries were being settled through street fights in many places in Bangladesh. The country has survived many political catastrophes like the brutal murders of two of its presidents, a couple of military coups and many mass upheavals even as its political system moved from the presidential form of government to a parliamentary form.

Distortion of History
Despite all this there is much confusion over the roles played by different sections during the nine-month occupation by the West Pakistani forces. This is so because people fail to distinguish between a political action and a moral action. Comprehending the difference between these two would be the best way to clear the misunderstandings.

In recent years some political parties have repeatedly tried to distort the history of Bangladesh and especially the war of independence. Twisting historical facts to suit particular motives is not an unusual phenomenon but ultimately the truth prevails. However, writing contemporary history is far more difficult than writing about the distant past because any discussion about contemporary issues is sure to be an emotionally charged one, given that many participants in these events would be living and many would also chance to be exercising political, economic and religious powers. These sections will be determined to construct the narration of the facts as they perceive them, leading to controversies, defensive arguments, buildup of tension and eventually to the polarization of communities.

In a developed society, professionals argue and debate over the accuracy of the facts. Some political and religious groups may try to extract controversy but the majority do not become a part of any group because they have the ability to think and make their own judgment independent of media or political hype. However, in some countries, some historical controversies continue to rage unabated as there are always a number of groups wanting them to remain so in order to reap the political and economic fallout. Bangladesh is one country where the controversy over the fight for freedom does not seem to end.

If people learn to distinguish and separate a political action from a moral action and develop a critical perspective, many unnecessary debates will automatically die down. This article attempts to describe what constitutes a “political action” and what is a “moral action” with the help of examples from the Bangladesh war of independence. These two concepts will be examined from the perspective of Bangladesh’s socio-political history and will occasionally refer to the history of other countries.

What Is a Political Action?
According to the sociologist Max Weber, when an individual is involved in an action which has subjective meanings of any form of power sharing, or brings any change to the existing meaning of power or control, it qualifies to be a political action. For example, the US war against Iraq was a political action wherein the Bush administration, rightly or wrongly, tried to contain the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in that country. When no WMDs were found, the emphasis was changed from a political issue to a moral cause. The administration is now trying to establish “democracy” in Iraq and in the countries of West Asia. The American people are divided on this issue. Similarly, in the past the Vietnam war raised many moral questions about US involvement in south-east Asia and the American people are still debating the political justifications given by the administration for that war. It is not unusual for one section of people to brand an action as a political action and for another section to see the same action as a moral issue. Thus we see the development of new ideas and concepts about a “just war” or an “unjust war.” A war may be just or unjust but certain truths cannot be overlooked. Issues related to destruction and death in a war will never escape the moral question. Thus the Pakistani attacks on the innocent Bengalis cannot be justified on any grounds.

“Operation Searchlight” on the mid night of 25 March 1971 was not due to “self- or other-defence against aggression…contemporary “just war” theory and international law have recognised only one just cause for war: self- or other-defence against aggression” (McMahan 2005: 1). The attack on Bengalis was a morally wrong and unjust act. The Pakistanis cannot justify Operation Searchlight by resorting to the argument of “preventive war” either because the movement launched by the East Pakistanis then following the postponement of the meeting of the National Assembly was a non-violent movement. Pakistan cannot defend its attacks on its own citizens as a “preventive war,” because generally a preventive war takes place between two political entities. Moreover, during 1970 “preventive war’ was “immoral and illegal as a matter of principle, as it is not a response to an actual or imminent attack” (Kaufman 2005: 23).

Historically, the people of what is now Bangladesh were involved in many political actions in order to bring about changes in the existing power structures. Until the beginning of British rule (1757), mass participation in political actions was mostly non-existent because the concept itself did not exist. During the battle of Plassey, wherein the army of the East India Company defeated Nawab Shiraj-ud-Doullah of Bengal, the ordinary people did not participate as the struggle was between two armies. Along with the British direct rule after 1857, the dynamics started changing as the British rulers gradually introduced a new form of political system requiring a limited form of people’s participation.

Beyond Immediate Interests
In the last 100 years there have been a number of instances when the majority of Bangladeshis have had to rise above their immediate needs and aspirations and support political leaders found to be most credible at that point of time and whose actions could benefit a majority of the people. Those instances have since become landmarks in the history of Bangladesh. During the 1940s, supporting the cause of Pakistan was considered appropriate by the people of East Bengal. Thus, both Muslims and Hindus of the lower castes in East Bengal voted for Pakistan since they thought it would be politically right to support the Muslims of East Bengal and opted for the creation of Pakistan. It was a political choice for both the communities since there were no moral values attached to the movement. The Hindu-dominant Congress fought to end British rule over India and the Muslim League fought for a separate country until finally India was divided.

Though riots broke out and both innocent Hindus and Muslims became victims of a communal carnage, it was not supported by the political leaders of either religious group. An individual could be a supporter of the movement for Pakistan and still condemn religious riots. A majority of the people of East Pakistan succeeded in differentiating political issues from moral ones though in recent years the boundaries between the two seem to be getting diluted. Political goals are beginning to form the basis of moral issues.

The process of combining political issues with moral ones began when the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, tried to impose the language of less than 7% people of the country over the majority only because according to the West Pakistani leaders, the Urdu dialect was the language of Islam as it had an alphabet similar to the Arabic language. Adding the moral overtone of Islam to political actions became a routine activity for most of the West Pakistani political leaders. This process started in a simple way, but gradually took over the whole body politic of Pakistan.

The language movement of 1952, the 1954 election (imposition of 92A rules after the 1954 elections led to the complete rout of the Muslim League in what was then East Pakistan, the central government banned all political activities there), imposition of martial law, the six-point movement (the six demands put forward by the Awami League in 1966 to end exploitation of the East Pakistan by West Pakistan and which envisaged a federation of Pakistan giving a great deal of autonomy to the states), the rise of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the 1970 elections, the announcement of the date of parliament’s meeting by Yahya Khan, followed by its cancellation at the insistence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, were all political actions related to political issues, though many a time the party in power tried to colour its actions with a moral brush. The West Pakistani politicians tried to show their East Pakistani counterparts as less patriotic and not true Muslims. Some supporters of the Urdu language announced that the protection of Urdu was equal to protecting religion, in this case Islam:

In the present circumstances, therefore, protection of the Urdu language is protection of our religion. Thus this protection is a religious obligation of every Muslim according to his capacity (Rahman 1996: 75).

The West Pakistani leaders used the moral tone to undermine great Bengali politicians like A K Fazlul Huq, Maulana Bhashani, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sheikh Mujib. But the use of religious overtones had nothing to do with the religion itself; these were moves to justify their unjust ways of staying in power. They did it to cover their political dishonesty and hypocrisy. The use of religious moral overtones applied to social and economic issues by the West Pakistani political leaders was designed to shift attention from the real issues.

Lending support to the Pakistan movement during 1940s or not doing so was purely a matter of individual choice. Many Muslims of undivided India were against Partition and the creation of Pakistan, while many Muslims were so emotionally charged with the concept of Pakistan that they were ready to leave their birthplace to become its citizens. Many Hindus of East Bengal opted for Pakistan though they knew they would form a minority there. During the 1960s the people of East Pakistan could support or vote against Sheikh Mujib’s six-point movement. There were no moral values attached to the six-point movement. There may have been strong nationalistic feelings awakened by the Awami League movement, but no religious colour was given to it. The West Pakistani leaders, on the other hand, tried to give moral connotations to every action of theirs.

Without going into the details of the historical reasons for the emergence of Bengali nationalism and events that followed leading to the final showdown in 1970 elections, one could easily summarise that the majority of East Pakistan’s population was for sustaining a united Pakistan with maximum political autonomy. A very small percentage of the population might have been contemplating separation from West Pakistan. Of course, no opinion polls were conducted on these issues, but anyone who lived through the period of united Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh would vouch for the truth of this assertion.

Until the crackdown of 1971, the majority of the people were hoping for a political solution to the crisis that emerged due to long-term military rule in Pakistan and even the Pakistani army junta announced that it was working towards a political solution (Zaheer 1994). Despite clear evidence that the West Pakistani military rulers were preparing for a military solution to the political crisis, people were still hopeful. Until the genocide began on 25 March 1971, the Bengali population living in East Pakistan looked upon it as a political issue on which they could have different opinions. Until the beginning of the genocide supporting West Pakistani leaders and a united Pakistan was a political choice. After that however it became a moral issue.

What Is a Moral Action?
For sociologist Emile Durkheim, the issue of morality is also an element of social life and works as a binding force in society. According to him, individuals need inner morality at the same time that they need external control in order to be free. The modern nation state decided to keep collective moral values away from the domain of public affairs; however, it succeeded in establishing a universal moral teaching for mankind. The modern moral teaching actually emerged from Greek classical thinkers.

Aristotle…says that a man ‘can be afraid and be bold and desire and be angry and pity and feel pleasure and pain in general, too much or too little’; but he says also that malice, shamelessness, and envy are such that their names imply that they are evil. So also with actions such as adultery, theft, and murder” (MacIntyre 1998: 65).

It is morally wrong to inflict injuries on another individual for whatever reasons. Homicide, rape and stealing are morally wrong actions. Even in times of declared war, the killing of civilian population is morally wrong. Attacking a group of people on grounds of religion, race, and/ or ethnicity is morally wrong. Political necessities do not make morally wrong actions right. A political action may seem right at one point of time or in a certain situation but issues of morality do not change with time and circumstance. During the 1970s the political elite of Pakistan tried to justify the immoral act of genocide by making a number of allegations against the leaders of the elected majority party of Pakistan, but the fact of the matter remains that they were involved in immoral actions. Whether the leaders responsible for the killings of thousands of innocent Bengalis were charged for committing crimes against humanity like the leaders of Nazi Germany and Bosnia were is not indicative of their moral status. Historically, they would always be branded as criminals.

After the crackdown of 25 March 1971, the crisis of Bangladesh became a moral issue. Until 25 March, an individual could have the privilege of supporting or not supporting Sheikh Mujib’s political calls or even one could support Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party. But after Operation Searchlight, and the indiscriminate attack of West Pakistanis on innocent Bengalis, the actions of negotiation lost political credibility. They turned into a moral issue, a question of right and wrong. Supporting indiscriminate killings of innocent people on any pretext cannot be morally right. It was alleged that convening parliament and allowing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of Pakistan’s parliament to design a constitution would destroy Pakistan. It was further alleged that Sheikh Mujib’s uncompromising attitude regarding his six-point programme was about to destroy Pakistan. The West Pakistani politicians and scholars are still searching for the reasons that forced the Pakistani army to attack East Pakistan in 1971. The attack was random, not selective. And it was merciless (Mascarenhas 1971). Attacking sleeping civilians who were also fellowcitizens was a cowardly act.

Taking recourse to a military solution of a political crisis was morally wrong then and is morally wrong today. The political crisis that was created by the West Pakistani junta with the collaboration of Bhutto by postponing the meeting of the National Assembly should have been resolved through a political solution and not by conducting massacres. While Yahya Khan looked upon Sheikh Mujib as a potential destroyer of a united Pakistan he did not seem to have had the same opinion about Bhutto who had already declared the demise of Pakistan by his “two-Assembly” proposal and announcement of Idhar-hum.. Udhar-tum (“I am on this side and you are on other”). The American newspapers recorded, “Bhutto and his followers, on the other hand, may have tacitly concluded that they would be prepared to let the East Pakistan secede – leaving themselves to govern a residual state in West Pakistan – rather than accept a weak federal system based on the Awami League program” (2000: 506).

Not everybody could join the fight in a literal sense, but they could make a choice to support the fight and stay on the morally right course or take the morally wrong course – collaborate with the killers. During the time of the war of independence only a handful of people chose to take the morally wrong path and collaborated with the invading army and its political supporters. During the occupation period some Bengalis joined Al-Shams, Al-Badar and other militant organisations specially formed to help eliminate Bengali intellectuals, doctors, professionals, and teachers. The members of these organisations raided houses and rounded up individuals and took them to a designated area to be killed. These kinds of activities cannot be termed as political actions. Many supporters of Pakistani occupation were directly involved in these kinds of activities.

During the second world war, after France surrendered to Germany, the Vichy government collaborated with the occupying German army. German occupation continued until 1945 and a resistance movement under the leadership of De Gaulle took shape during this period. Not all French citizens joined the resistance movement and neither did all of them collaborate with the occupation forces. Immediately after the end of occupation the French government prepared a list of collaborators who were identified and punished. French Resistance forces summarily executed, after cursory trials, about 10,000 collaborators as part of “justice at the cross-roads” while the courts condemned about 2,000 people to death and more than 40,000 were sent to prison. Vichy prime minister Pierre Level was also executed.

Bangladesh’s history has turned out differently. Immediately after the Pakistani army surrendered, there was massive confusion helped by the availability of the captured arms and ammunition. There were a large number of groups belonging to the local resistance forces that were not under any central authority. Therefore, the government-in-exile had a hard time establishing law and order in the country. Moreover, the pivotal force of the liberation was Sheikh Mujib, who was under arrest in a foreign land far away from the country. All these factors prevented the newly formed government of Bangladesh from initiating as policy to deal with the collaborators. Moreover, countries like the US and China as also many many Muslim countries did not support the Bangladeshi fight for liberation. No list of collaborators was prepared by the new administration, though every city, town and thana had witnessed local collaborators. All these collaborators had not necessarily participated directly in the atrocities but they did not condemn Pakistani atrocities either. A list should have been prepared with specific charges and they should have been brought before the special courts for judgment (there was a list of persons against whom criminal cases were filed). Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, no action was taken against those named in the list. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman provided blanket amnesty to all Bangladeshis who collaborated with the Pakistani army irrespective of the nature of the collaboration. Later on after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, Ziaur Rahman rehabilitated the collaborators by offering them higher political positions in his administration.

Mixing Moral with Political Actions
The Pakistani army leadership under Yahya Khan succeeded in avoiding prosecution by the International Tribunal Court with the support of the Nixon administration which was a reward for the establishment of diplomatic ties with the Chinese government. But for the people of East Pakistan who were the victims of Pakistani attacks, the supporters of the Pakistani government were guilty of committing crimes against humanity. Political propaganda may provide a different meaning to a particular action but the universality of a moral issue hardly changes. Perpetrators of a moral wrong are the wrongdoers and “every wrong action is a lie” (MacIntyre 1998: xii). “The action of a wrongdoer always gives expression to a judgment which is false and thus misrepresents some reality” (ibid).

The West Pakistani leadership succeeded in misrepresenting the reality but like, “every wrong action is a lie”, their wrong actions were full of lies. It is still trying to find scapegoats for its own “wrongdoings”. The Hamood-er Rahman Commission was a testimony of a “big lie” with some small truths. Thus if someone fails to separate a moral issue from a political issue by simply listening to Pakistani propaganda, they need to ask themselves some universal questions: On what moral grounds can one justify the killings of innocent ordinary people of any community? The Pakistani government and society have not yet agreed to atone for the wrongdoing of 1971. It is not unusual for “wrongdoers” to repent and seek forgiveness. Until that redemption takes place, supporting Pakistan is morally wrong.

Hare, R M (1952): The Language of Morals (Clarendon: Oxford Press)

Kaplan, Alice (2000): The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (Chicago: The Chicago University Press)

Kaufman, Whitley (2005): “What’s Wrong with Preventive War? The Moral and Legal Basis for the Preventive Use of Force”, Ethics and International Affairs, 19, No 3, December

Lagrou, Pieter (2000): The Legacy of Nazi Occupation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

MacIntyre, Alasdair (1998): A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press)

McMahan, Jeff (2005): “Just Cause for War”, Ethics and International Affairs, 19, No 3, December

Mascarenhas, Anthony (1971): The Rape of Bangladesh (Delhi: Vikas Publications)

Rahman, Tariq (1996): Language and Politics in Pakistan (Karachi: Oxford University Press)

Zaheer, Hasan (1994): The Separation of East Pakistan: The Rise and Realisation of Bengali Muslim Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

First published in the Economic & Political Weekly, January 31, 2009

Mokerrom Hossain ( is with the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice, Virginia State University