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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Proposal for a South Asian regional union


THROUGHOUT THE triumphs and tragedies of the internal politics of Bangladesh, especially at a moment of crisis or a defining point for the nation, the neighbouring countries of India and Pakistan have always played a vital role in many ways.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Charter was formally adopted on Dec. 8, 1985 by the governments of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to provide a platform for the peoples of South Asia to work together in a spirit of friendship, trust and understanding and to accelerate the process of economic and social development in its member states. But it’s really sad that SAARC itself has failed to accelerate the practical cooperation of the leaders of the member states for greater development; in reality, it has become a platform of shame and failure.

There is a long story of plotting and problems that can go on and on for many pages. But I want to share the dream of a united union of secular states, comprised of three countries of South Asia - Bangladesh, India, Pakistan - and one country of south central Asia - Afghanistan.

There is struggle for unity in this region, in name of religion, power and politics, where Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan can come out of their conflicts; one example is the Kashmir conflict, where both India and Pakistan refer to Kashmir as an "integral part" of their respective countries, leading their nations and the region into further conflict and crisis.

India and Pakistan have fought wars over Kashmir; Islamic militancy has grown in these countries, with the mood of hatred providing a welcome environment for the insurgency. We need to work with India and Pakistan to resolve this crisis, and that will be possible with a union of secular states. Unless India and Pakistan sit together to resolve the problem, it will never be solved. The root of religious oppression is interrelated with the growing crisis in this region. Also, any crises involving India, Pakistan and Afghanistan affect Bangladesh. In the same way, any problem that is related to religion or politics obviously powerfully affects the other countries in the region.

I dream of a union of secular states, not an atheist or Hindu or Islamic union of states. A union of secular states will lead with the concept of secularism, whereby the states in the union are officially neutral in matters of religion, neither supporting nor opposing any particular religious beliefs or practices. Where the state treats all its citizens equally regardless of religion and does not give preferential treatment to a citizen from a particular religion over those from other religions.

In the union, there would need to be a centrally planned economy with a macroeconomic stabilization policy. The economy would be directed based on economic democracy, by adopting a very firm focus on national planning with a series of five-year plans. The dreams and expectations of the small minority of corporate shareholders to the majority of public stakeholders should be positively reflected in the union's economic plan. Whereas the people will come under one umbrella, the union will be a platform for change; every citizen will be a change-maker. There would need to be a unique currency. The union should imitate the Asian Tiger economies within their first 10 years.

By encouraging economic interdependence within the union, the union will be able to deal effectively with problems from outside competitors.

The education system should be a progressive process of inculcating ideas, attitudes, and cognitive strategies, enriched with international, environmental, scientific and professional methodologies. The states should ensure the right to education by applying the same standard to all their citizens, while the politics of the union should be taught systematically to everyone, from the lower to the upper classes. The union, based on democratic centralism, would practice direct democracy. This will be a critical combination of two different democratic processes.

To bring forth the change in the region is not easy as simply writing down ideas. I want recall the words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th U.S. president, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable." G. K. Chesterton also said, “You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.”

Every revolution was first a thought in one man's mind, which then spread to others. This thought will spread to the nations of the region; it will not go backwards. One day, the nations of our region will not be named in connection with any violence, but will be called the land of prosperity and possibility. #

William Nicholas Gomes is a renowned human rights activist; filmmaker and freelance journalist of Bangladesh. He can be reached by email:

Friday, October 09, 2009

Prosecute Bangladesh's war criminals

Photo: Skeletons of victims of genocide displayed at Bangladesh Liberation War Museum in Dhaka
British Bangladeshis are among those accused of war crimes in the 1971 war of liberation. The nation needs justice

THE WAR of liberation in 1971 is still a highly charged and emotive subject within Bangladeshi society. The event, through which the country was born 38 years ago, continues to be a polarising issue, haunting the present. The fact that the alleged war criminals – those who committed atrocities against innocent civilians during the nine-month war – have not been brought to justice is a major cause of contention.

It is a source of the ongoing paralysis in the country's democracy and the culture of impunity that dogs all sections of society. It is also at the root of the role of religion in contemporary Bangladeshi identity. Consecutive governments have made pledges to prosecute perpetrators and hold them accountable. None have so far delivered.

Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister and the leader of the Awami League, the political party that swept to power in the 2008 elections, has promised to hold long overdue war crime tribunals, seeking assistance from the UN. Throughout the country, there is growing optimism that the victims and survivors can finally receive restitution.

With the retreat of the British Raj and the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, East Bengal became a part of Pakistan. Known as East Pakistan, it was separated from West Pakistan not only physically (with India in the middle), but also linguistically and culturally. It soon became clear that Islam, the raison d'être for the Pakistan project, could not unify these vastly different regions. Even the shared faith was practised in radically different ways: the east being far more liberal than the west. This division was heightened by Pakistani suspicion that Bengalis were only nominally Muslim. Their relatively recent conversion from Hinduism (albeit a century or so ago) made them, in the eyes of the West Pakistani ruling elite, unreliable coreligionists.

To pave over the cracks, in 1952 it was ordained that Urdu, with its echoes of the sacred language, Arabic, would be the official language of the two sides. There was widespread resistance to this in East Pakistan and when student protesters were shot dead, the first martyrs of what was to become the liberation movement were created.

The two wings hobbled along together until 1970 when, after 12 years of military rule, East and West Pakistan went to the ballot. The outright winner of the election was the Awami League. However, the West Pakistani administration refused to allow the party's then leader, Mujibur Rahman (father of the current prime minister), a Bengali from East Pakistan, to form the government. Their chosen man was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As negotiations between both sides broke down and Bengalis launched a campaign of civil disobedience, the Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971. Up to three million Bengalis were murdered in the crackdown and more than 200,000 women were raped or sexually assaulted. To escape the genocide, 10 million people crossed the border into India.

Atrocities were committed by the occupying Pakistani soldiers and their Bengali collaborators. The latter, known as razakars, were against the break-up as it was contrary to their vision of building an Islamic khilafat, or state. Thus the idealism of a secular identity, based upon Bengali nationalism as articulated by Mujibur Rahman was abhorrent to them. The razakars were in the main members of Islamist parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which is allied to Wahhabism and to the fundamentalist Deobandi sect.

Using local knowledge, they perpetrated the worst brutalities and massacres of the war. They rounded up and executed people who they thought were colluding with India to divide Pakistan. This included members of the Awami League party, intellectuals, guerrilla fighters who were involved in skirmishes against the army and Hindus. In reality, much of the killing was indiscriminate. The carnage of those few months has been collected in rooms full of black and white photographs in the Liberation Museum in Dhaka.

They depict chilling images of mass burial pits with decomposing bodies, the remnants of the slaughter of entire villages.

Mujibur Rahman did initiate trials against war criminals but he was assassinated in 1975. Last year, the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, a civil society initiative in Bangladesh, released the most comprehensive list of alleged suspects to date.

It includes the late Yahya Khan, president of Pakistan at the time, but the majority are Bengali razakars as well as previous and current leaders of JI. Many of these fled in the aftermath of the war and some came to the UK.

A Channel Four documentary from 1995 made allegations of involvement by British Bangladeshis in the genocide. Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, director of Muslim Spiritual Care Provision in the NHS, who was until recently vice-chairman of the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre and was involved in setting up the Muslim Council of Britain, is one of the most prominent people to be accused of having carried out war crimes.

Mueen-Uddin is alleged to have been part of a group that abducted and "disappeared" people. Witnesses at the time describe seeing him kidnapping a university professor and a journalist in Dhaka during the war. Mueen-Uddin told the documentary makers "all the accusations being made against me are … utterly false and malicious, and either politically motivated or instigated otherwise".

Having left the newly created country of Bangladesh for London, Mueen-Uddin, along with other members of JI set up Islamic Forum Europe, an avowedly Islamist organisation connected to the East London Mosque.

Among the numerous ways in which consecutive Bangladeshi governments have lagged behind public opinion, the inaction with regard to trying the alleged war criminals is the least forgivable for many. Undeterred, Bengali civil society has continued to be vociferous in making sure this issue does not disappear.

Unless trials are seen to be free and fair, they will be perceived as political point-scoring by the Awami League. It is incumbent on the British Bangladeshi community, together with wider British society, to join the demands to bring the Bangladeshi war criminals to justice. It is also time to rethink a period of history which has continuing ramifications for today. #

First published in the Guardian, Wednesday 7 October 2009

Delwar Hussain is a writer on South Asian society, currently completing a doctorate at Kings College, Cambridge