Monthly Coupon

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Blow to Religion-Based Politics in Bangladesh


HERE IS some disconcerting news for all disciples of neocon gurus, who had discovered Islam as the enemy of democracy and the successor to the "evil empire" of the cold war era. An Islamic country of 160 million people, under an elected government, is witnessing important but ill-noticed moves to abolish religion-based politics.

On February 2, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh struck down a nearly 11-year-old constitutional amendment that had allowed religion-based political parities to function and flourish in the country. The ruling had the effect of restoring the statutory secularism, which Bangladesh adopted in 1972 after liberation from Pakistan and lost five years later following a series of military coups.

It may also have the effect of inspiring at least a debate on the issues in Pakistan, the other Islamic country of South Asia. It may also have a ripple effect, helping to raise the issues subsequently in sections of the rest of the Islamic world.

This only carries forward an old battle. The logic of Bangladesh's liberation war itself led the nation's founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to place its linguistic identity above the religious. The reverse of the same logic drove religion-based groups in the the pre-liberation East Pakistan to side with Islamabad in the war.

The first constitution of Bangladesh, under Article 38, placed a bar on religion-based parties and politics. Mujib, as he was popularly known, and most of his family were assassinated in a coup on August 25, 1975. A series of coups since then culminated in the country's takeover by Maj.-Gen. Ziaur Rahman in 1977. In April 1979, the Zia regime enacted the infamous Fifth Amendment to the constitution, paving the way for the return of religion-based parties and politics.

Article 38 of the original constitution proclaimed: "Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of morality or public order." But it clearly added: "Provided that no person shall have the right to form, or be a member or otherwise take part in the activities of, any communal or other association or union which in the name or on the basis of any religion has for its object, or pursues, a political purpose."

As revised under the Fifth Amendment, the Article said: "Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of public order or public health." The amendment scrapped the original Article 12, which enshrined "secularism" and "freedom of religion" in the supreme law of the land.

Earlier, by a proclamation, the martial law regime made other major changes in the constitution as well. The Preamble to the constitution was preceded by the religious invocation, "Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim" (in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful). In the text of the Preamble, the words "a historic struggle for national liberation" were replaced with "a historic war for national independence." The phrase mentioning "nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism" as the "high ideals" in the second paragraph was replaced with "absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah, nationalism, democracy and socialism meaning economic and social justice."

Article 8 of the original constitution - laying down nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism as the four fundamental principles of state policy - was amended to omit "secularism" and replace it with "absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah." In repeated pronouncements, Zia also substituted "Bangladeshi nationalism" for the "Bengali nationalism" of the Mujib days that stressed a non-religious identity.

Lt.-Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who staged yet another coup and ruled Bangladesh during 1982-86, carried Zia's initiative forward by making Islam the "state religion" through the Eighth Amendment.

The battle between the secular and anti-secular camps continued through all this, and became more open after the country's return to democracy in 1991. The Awami League (AL), headed by Mujib's daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajed, has always fought for abrogation of the Fifth Amendment. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), founded by Zia and now led by his widow Begum Khaleda Zia, and its allies pursuing religion-based politics have remained uncompromising supporters of the amendment.

The AL and its allies scored a legal victory in August 2005, when the country's High Court held the amendment unconstitutional. The court said: "These changes (made by the Fifth Amendment) were fundamental in nature and changed the very basis of our war for liberation and also defaced the constitution altogether." It added that the amendment transformed secular Bangladesh into a "theocratic state" and "betrayed one of the dominant causes for the war of liberation."

The government in Dhaka, then a coalition of the BNP and the religion-based Jamaat-i-Islami (JeI), moved a petition in the Supreme Court against the ruling. The order was stayed and the issue of the amendment was put on the back burner, where it stayed for four years.

Then came a major political change. A year ago, on January 6, 2009, Hasina returned as prime minister after a landslide electoral victory. In early May 2009, the AL government withdrew the old, official petition for staying the 2005 court ruling. The BNP-JeI alliance was quick to react. BNP Secretary General Khondker Delwar Hossain and three lawyers from the JeI rushed to the Supreme Court with petitions seeking to protect the amendment. Their petitions have been thrown out.

The JeI and other religion-based groups did not endear themselves to the country, as the results of the last general election showed, with their violent activities. The serial bombing they carried out across Bangladesh in 2005, taking a heavy toll of human lives, did not help the BNP return to power through the ballot box. The period 2001-06, when the BNP-led alliance wielded power, witnessed "unprecedented" atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities, according to Bangladeshi rights activist Shahriar Kabir. The victims included Hindus, Ahmediyas and other communities and the atrocities ranged from killings and rapes to destruction and desecration of places of worship.

After the Supreme Court's verdict, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed has said that all religion-based parties should "drop the name of Islam from their name and stop using religion during campaigning." He has also announced that religion-based parties are going to be "banned." The government, however, has disavowed any intention to remove the Islamic invocation from the Preamble of the constitution.

All this has already drawn attention in Pakistan, which has continued to suffer from religion-based politics despite its popular rejection in successive elections. Veteran Pakistani columnist Babar Ayaz, in an article captioned "Amendments for a secular constitution" in the Lahore-based Daily Times, talks of the clauses in Pakistan's constitution, introduced by former dictator Zia ul-Haq "who considered himself a kind of religious guardian of the country."

Noting the moves in Bangladesh, Ayaz adds: "Pakistan may not be able to ban religion-based political parties in the near future, but it should move towards expunging the ridiculous constitutional clauses mentioned above ... It would be a long and hard struggle, but it is doable."

Bangladesh is in for a long and hard struggle, too. The BNP has threatened an agitation against the changes. It is likely to combine this with a campaign against India (under whose pressure Hasina is alleged to be acting), and New Delhi can be counted upon to keep providing grist to Khaleda's political mill with Big Brother-like actions widely resented in Bangladesh.

There are also limits to which a constitution alone can counter religion-based politics. The far right's activities in India, proud of its staunchly secular constitution, furnishes just one example.

The significance of what is happening in Bangladesh, however, cannot be belittled either. It demonstrates the far greater role popular will can play in combating religion-based politics than cluster bombs and drones. #

First published in TruthOut, February 05, 2010

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Enough is enough


IF THE news of the past two weeks was not enough to persuade Bangladeshis that so-called student politics should be banned without further ado, I do not know what will.

First came the tragic story of Abubakr Siddique, a quiet third year Dhaka University student from an impoverished background, the first of his family to attend university.

Siddique died of head injuries last week after being caught in the midst of clashes between rival factions of the Chhatro League (student front of the ruling Awami League) and the police who had been called in to quell the violence at his hall of residence.

Now comes the sickening news from Rajshahi University, where Shibir (student front of Jamaat-e-Islami) activists went on a rampage this week that left one Chhatro League activist hacked to death, his body dumped down a man-hole, and scores more injured, included four who had had tendons in their hands and legs severed.

The reports coming from RU especially have turned the nation's stomach. We may have become a little jaded about campus violence over the years, but the brutality of the killing and maimings has shocked the nation.

Enough, surely, is enough.

When we live in a parliamentary democracy, there should be no need for political parties to rely on shock troops or for the issues of the day to be fought out on university campuses.

Of course, student cadres are like nuclear weapons. The other side has theirs, so you have to have yours. That is why simultaneous disarmament of all student front organisations is the only solution.

It is also true that student politics is only one piece of the greater problem of violence that is committed by political party cadres. As long as each political party keeps cadres of armed thugs as an integral part of maintaining its power and authority, the nation's political discourse will continue to be disfigured by violence.

But cleaning up the campuses is a good place to start. Turning our colleges and universities into politics-free zones is something which would be very popular with the public and would do more to benefit higher education in Bangladesh than any other measure.

There is no reason why we cannot make public colleges and universities safe for ordinary students and ban any political activity or organising on campus. Student politics is banned in private universities, without any ill-effects that I have noticed.

Let's get one thing straight. The political parties' student fronts are nothing more than criminal organisations. They illegally influence the admissions process, control the residence halls, and even corrupt the examination process.

It is a national disgrace that we have allowed so-called student politics to completely destroy the fabric of public education in this country.

Student politics, as it exists today, serves no useful purpose whatsoever. To the contrary, the corrosive impact it has had on our politics and our society, to say nothing of our higher education, is self-evident.

It is true that the Shibir are the most brutal of all the student front groups, with tendon severing a specialty of theirs, as they have amply demonstrated this past week.

But it would be quite incorrect to state that the other parties' student fronts are not also criminal organisations with an almost equally frightening record of violence.

Ultimately, it is the government which will benefit most from a ban on student politics. It will mean moving against its own student front organisations, which will not be easy.

But, in the first place, polls have shown that the rampant criminality of its student front organisations is the thing that the public faults the government for the most.

And the recent rout at RU has shown that when it comes to viciousness, the Chhatro League must still take a back seat to its rivals, specially the Shibir.

If the government were to ban student politics, clear out the musclemen and gangsters (almost all of whom are not even real students), and turn the campuses into a violence-free zone, it would, at a single stroke, solve the problem of its own unruly student factions, ensure that the opposition could not use the campuses to launch anti-government agitations, and take a strong first step towards fixing our broken universities.

Such a move would be enormously popular with the public, as well. It would be win-win-win-win. What's not to like? #

First published in Sunday Guardian, February 14, 2010

Zafar Sobhan is Editor, Editorial & Op-Ed, The Daily Star

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Bangladesh: Golden Hues of Hope in Sonar Bangla

Survey & Graphics: Courtesy Daily Star

BANGLADESH HAS visibly crossed several crossroads. After thirty five years of the dastardly assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by army rebels guided by plotters like Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmad, Ziaur Rahman justice has been meted out to five killers. They were hanged on January 28, 2010. The remaining seven killers are hiding abroad. Irrespective of their humanitarian considerations and aversion for death sentence these countries including Canada should repatriate the national criminals of Bangladesh. Only then, the cycle of justice would be completed. The hangings have sent a message to the butchers of democracy that Bangladesh was created by the visionaries who wanted separate cultural identity for the Bengali speaking people of Pakistan. Unfortunately, in Pakistan the killers of Z. A. Bhutto (judicial hanging) and Benazir Bhutto are yet to be brought to the books. Pakistan has emerged as a country where human lives are cheaper than foul and goat hawked in the market. A nation cannot maintain its entity if the killers, coup leaders and usurpers are not brought to justice.

Earlier in January 2009 dramatic changes took place in the political scenario of the struggling nation. Political developments during last decade had brought into sharp focus on the quantum of ideological chasm between the forces headed by pro-liberation and secular combine headed by Sheikh Hasina Wazed and the post-Mujib political usurpers, pro-Pakistani and Islamist conglomerate headed by Begum Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). If Ziaur Rahman was a part of the plot to kill Sheikh Mujib, how can his wife remain ignorant about that? She should be made to speak and disclose the truth and crimes committed against the people of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh was born out of the aspirations of the Bengali speaking people to achieve political, economic, and cultural freedom from the overwhelming alien ethnic forces represented by Punjabi dominated political, bureaucratic and military hegemony. The movements also aimed at restoration of the unique secular tradition of the Bengali speaking people-on either side of the geopolitical fence.

Violent changes imposed on the people of Bangladesh by the conspiratorial forces of Pakistan, USA; represented by the ISI and the CIA and the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami had tried to virtually negate the achievements of the liberation war. Mujib’s death and ultimate capture of power by Ziaur Rahman marked the stark dividing line between the forces of liberation, establishment of secular democratic forces represented by the Awami League and the pro-Pakistan, pro-Islamist non-secular forces represented by the BNP. The BNP was not only a political face of the military regime; it emerged as the umbrella for all non-secular Islamist anti-Indian forces and an echo pillar for the Pakistani conspirators. Common sensible people in Bangladesh call the BNP as Bangla Name Pakistan (Pakistan in the garb of Bangla political front).

This was proved beyond doubt when Ziaur Rahman allowed the Jamaat chief to return to Bangladesh and reopen the fundamentalist shop. Zia’s open collaboration with the CIA and the ISI resulted in recruitment of over 15, 000 Bangladeshis and Rohingyas for undergoing training in ISI, Al Qaeda and Afghan mujahideen camps and fighting against the USSR. Nearly 2000 Bangla jihadis were deputed to Bosnia, Chechnya and other theatres of jihad directly or indirectly sponsored by the USA, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda. Zia was responsible for Islamization of secular Bangladesh and dragging it closer to Pakistan.

After conclusion of the Afghan jihad 8000 odd jihadis returned to Bangladesh, who opened new jihadi outfits to Islamicise Bangladesh and remove the last vestiges of the secular identity of the Bangladeshi people. Since then the Jamaat and the jihadi forces did not have to look back. Islamization process, proliferation in activities of the jihadi groups and stranglehold of Pakistan and pumping in of Arab world fund for strengthening Islamic resurgence were given priority by the BNP and Jamaat coalition government. Between 1993 and 2003 over 36 jihadi tanzeems rooted in the country and over 8000 afghan war veterans opened new jihad accelerating bodies, started over 65 new madrasas and proclaimed that their objective was establishing Nizam-e-Mustafa in Bangladesh. The BNP/Jamaat government did everything possible to bury the name of Bangabandhu, arranged attempt on Sheikh Hasina’s life and closed eyes on the activities of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami (HuJI), Bangla Bhai, Hizbut Tehrir, Ahl-e-Hadith and Allahar Dal etc armed terrorist movements. Pakistani jihadi tanjeems like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad etc also opened shop in Bangladesh and the ISI, in collaboration with the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) accelerated terrorist activities in India. It is needless to say that the pro-Pakistani tools of governance in Bangladesh were treated as the most trusted allies by the Indian ethnic insurgent groups.

However, oxidization of the golden hue dream of Sonar Bangla was abruptly checkmated with the landslide win of the Awami League headed by Sheikh Hasina in the last election and marginalization of BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami and other fanatic forces. The people of Bangladesh voted overwhelmingly for Sheikh Hasina to restore freedom of the country that was earned with blood of millions of Bangla citizens. However, this new earned freedom faced immediate threat in the form of bloodied revolt by the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force. Within two months of installation of the new government of liberation the Bangladesh Rifle officers and jawans staged a revolt in Dhaka and other detachment headquarters. The bloodied revolt, ostensively staged on certain grievances, there were informed opinions that political opponents and sections of the armed forces and the military intelligence, the DGFI, had motivated the revolt to get pro-democracy Army Chief General Moeen removed and bring about a army coup by dismissing the newly elected government. There were reports that BNP and Jamaat leaders were the main motivators. However, Sheikh Hasina tackled the national crisis with firm grit and determination and pragmatic approach.

It can be said that Hasina has succeeded to a great extent in defanging the DGFI and has established reasonable control on the armed forces by pushing aside the prominent BNP and Jamaat leaning senior army officers. To General Moeen goes the credit of helping the secular and democratic government.

After completion of one year in January 2010, despite several internal shortcomings, Hasina government has maintained reasonably high level of popularity. According to a study carried out recently by Daily Star newspaper of Bangladesh, the new government has suffered some erosion in popularity on certain fronts. But it maintained considerable popular support. In an impoverished country like Bangladesh it is not possible for any government to maintain 80% popularity. Drought, flood, cyclones and shortage of food, shelter and lack of employment opportunities obviously maintain high level of disapproval of any government in a struggling country like Bangladesh. Bangladesh depends heavily on manpower export to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Libya and the Gulf countries. After the global recession thousands of labour force working abroad returned home, putting pressure on the employment front. The youths are restive and they want the Dhaka government to negotiate with other countries to facilitate their job opportunities in foreign markets; mostly in semi-skilled labour sectors.

Government actions to ban jihadi entities like Ahl-e-Hadith, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, HuJI, Allahar Dal and hanging of three JMB criminals for serial bombings obviously irritated good number of fanatics, which constitute nearly 15%-20% population of the state. Large numbers of jihadi activists were arrested and are being tried. The discovery of huge arms and ammunition manufacturing facility at Bhola, an island, which was being run by a British national of Bangladesh origin, Faisal Mustafa under cover of Green Crescent madrasa, highlighted the determination of Hasina government to deal firmly with all terror breeding organizations.

The government also relentlessly pursued the illegal import of 10 trucks full of sophisticated weapons by the ULFA in collaboration with the National Security Intelligence (NSI) and the DGFI. The arms were imported by ULFA chief Paresh Barua in 2004. The BNP government winked at the induction of 10 trucks full of weapons for carrying out depredations in Assam and other places in northeast India. Only after the new government came to power several senior officers of the NSI and the DGFI and other accused persons related to BNP were arrested and brought up for trial.

These steps, coupled with the government decision to modernize madrasa education and streamlining religious education in co0nformity with the education policy of the country has angered the Maulvis and other streams of religious teachers. This class is not happy with government decision to overhaul rural primary education and to root out organized armed gangs dominating several educational institutions in the country.

Devastation caused by Cyclone Sidr in November 2005 and Cyclone Aila in May 2009 left hundreds of villages in ruins. The rural poor in the southern districts were most hard hit. Despite mobilization of internal and international help the government has not been able to restore normalcy. Economic recession accompanied by shortage of funds and other amenities have left thousands of families still uprooted and unsettled.

The government of Sheikh Hasina struggled to cope with natural disasters, challenges from the Islamist terrorists, pro-Pakistani political conspirators and global recession. In a politically volatile country economic depression and price rise and inflation add to restlessness and such opportunities are exploited by diversionary political elements like the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami and their cohorts. In the midst of such chaotic ambience Hasina completed her one year in power and the survey taken up by Daily Star indicate that despite several factors of dissatisfaction Hasina has maintained high degree of popularity.

There are few other reasons of dissatisfaction in several segments of the populace. Though violence was injected into the political and social souls of Bangladesh by the killers of Mujib and later military dictators, the people of Bangladesh have not succumbed to the culture of violence, as imbued by the Pakistani society, where religious banditry is passed as Islam. However, in Bangladesh the student’s movement has become the violent fringes of political ideology.

The student wing of Awami League, Chattra League, is a powerful institution. The League has firm stranglehold in most educational institutions and they are also known for interfering in local administration. Bangladesh politics is crucially dominated by students unions, mainly Chattra League (AL), Chattra Dal (BNP), Islamic Chattra Shibir (Jamaat-e- Islami), Islamic Student Movement of Bangladesh (want Khilafa), and Revolutionary Students Unity of Bangladesh (Left) etc. These students unions, aligned on political lines, often clash in the Universities and other educational institutions. They try to capture the university hostels and dictate terms on the authorities. During BNP/Jamaat rule the Chattra Dal and Chattra Shibir along with Islamic Student Movement of Bangladesh dominated the political scene, tender grabbing for government works, killing and maiming Chattra League activists and maiming the local administration.

Now that Awami League is in power the Chattra League is flexing muscles. Grabbing tenders for government works has become an issue of serious concern. There are frequent violent clashes between Chattra League, Chattra Dal and Islamic Chattra Shibir. In recent months there have been serious efforts by Chattra Dal and Shibir to capture political grassroots in different districts by violently dislodging the Chattra League. In January 2010 a combined group of Shibir and Chattra Dal carried out violent armed attack on a Dhaka university college.

Such clashes often result in killing of students and members of the faculty. Sheikh Hasina has several times tried to discipline the Chattra League leaders and party leaders who exercise control on CL in different districts. General public opinion is against such activism by the student unions of the political parties. However, there has been some qualitative difference this time. A number of Chattra League leaders have been booked under the law for criminal activities. The government does not want to come down heavily fearing upsurge of student unions owing allegiance to the opposition parties. Hasina has some tight rope warning ahead. She has to convert the dynamism of the students and youths to constructive activities for fighting fundamentalism, promote secularism and get them imbued with spirit of sacrifices committed by the leading freedom fighters. Mukti Juddha (freedom struggle) is still a vibrant dream in the minds of majority of Bangladeshi people. The students can help Hasina by harnessing these sentiments.

The other issue that agitates public minds is Cross Firing by Rapid Action Battalions (RAB). In Bangladesh Cross Fire means faked encounter. During BNP/Jamaat rule there were over 500 Cross Fire killings of criminals, political opponents and Marxist-Leninist and Maoist leaders and workers. In the western districts of Bangladesh the revolutionary Maoist left movement is quite strong. During last one year about 100 people have died in Cross Fire. This legacy of killing the people in the ruse of encounter allegedly helps the administration to avoid going through the encumbered hassles of legal prosecution. Only recently Hasina government has issued some directives to examine each and every case of Cross Fire death. Bangladesh Human Rights activists are also agitating against this legacy of the military rule and reckless rule by BNP/Jamaat.

The issue of security of the minorities (Hindu, Buddhists, Christians and peripheral Hindu tribals) is a burning issue. With the return of Sheikh Hasina the minorities had heaved a sigh of relief that they would no more be subjected to rioting, forcible eviction from their lands and homes, their women would be protected and their religious places would not be destroyed by the BNP, Jamaat and Jihadi groups. According available statistics during the BNP/Jamaat rule over 1500 homes of the minorities were forcibly occupied, about 1500 acres of land grabbed, 370 minority women were raped and about the same umber kidnapped, converted and married to Muslims. Besides such atrocities plundering of Hindu business establishments and killing of businessmen had become a common feature. The minority segments of the people, especially the huge tribal population of Chittagong Hill Tracts still feel insecure. Hasina government has taken some steps to ensure security of the minorities, but in a wild riverine country dictates of the law are often hijacked by the Islamists and minority baiters. Being the head of a secular and democratic government Sheikh Hasina has to perform better and bring in new legislation for constitutional protection of the minorities as prevalent in India. Bangladesh requires constitutional guarantees for their rights. This action would be the acid test of Bangladeshi secularism.

Bangladesh government has been cautioned against promulgating a law that would encourage land grabbers to illegally seize properties belonging to minority Hindus, accelerating a process that has been on since India’s partition in 1947. Human rights activists, lawyers and NGOs urged the government to scrap the proposed ‘Vested Property Verification, Selection and Settlement Ordinance, 2008′. They are of the view that ‘Vested Property Return Act 2001’ is good enough to resolve the land issue of the minority community (Hindu). This replaced a Pakistan era law enacted to deal with the ownership rights over the ‘enemy property’, left behind by millions of minority Hindus who migrated to India. It was either left to the care of relatives who chose to stay behind, or was grabbed, generating legal disputes. Studies have shown that this process continued after the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 and land-grabbing has been condoned by all political parties. The Awami League government was keen to introduce the new proposed law in the Parliament. However, under pressure from different lobbies the government has deferred the move. Some modifications have been suggested. This historic issue should be settled to the satisfaction of the minorities, otherwise Hasina government would lose popularity amongst the minority population. Surprisingly enough the government of India had not brought up this subject for bilateral discussion with the Bangladesh Prime Minister during her recent visit to Delhi. Sheikh Hasina must gather support to bring about a new law that would protect land, lives and dignity of the minorities, setting up a standard for all other Muslim majority countries.

Corruption and price rise in Bangladesh is rampant as in India and various parts of South Asia and South East Asia. Poverty is more acute in Bangladesh, particularly in the rural areas. High rise in consumer commodity prices during last one year has caused severe distress amongst the poor segments of the people. Observers opined that Hasina government is either unwilling or in collusion with the corrupt hoarders, speculators and price manipulators. This allegation is wild. She is personally honest, but it is not possible to inject honesty serum in all politicians and bureaucrats. India has miserably failed. Why bait Bangladesh alone?

Fish, a staple daily diet has become scarce. Bangladesh has to import fish from India though certain categories of fish are allowed to be exported to earn foreign exchange. Obviously, Bangladesh is heavily dependent on India for edible oils, pulses, condiments, sugar and other items of daily needs. Closure of legal or illegal trade with India for more than 15 days would create severe scarcity in Bangladesh, which is capable of provoking critical political crisis. With the improvement of bilateral relations border trading and regular export and import situation should improve. Hasina’s government has marginally succeeded in bringing down prices of essential commodities to some extent and the country gained bumper production in the wake of giving subsidy to agriculture inputs.

While the above narrated issues are responsible for dwindling popularity of Hasina government within a year of her thundering return to power she deserves applause on certain other scores. There cannot be exclusive black and white situation.

Her government has displayed that it is determined to root out jihadism and terrorism in any form. The interim government as well as the new elected government has started taking firm action against the major and minor Islamist, terrorist and jihadi organisations. The Ahl-e-Hadith Bangladesh, Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, Hizbut Tehrir and Allhar Dal etc virulently violent organisations have been banned. Several JMB activists, bomb specialists have been arrested and prosecuted. JMB is regarded as the affiliate of Taliban in Bangladesh, Its connectivity with al Qaeda is well proved. A special Bangladesh court sentenced three members of militant Islamic groups to death on in February2008 for involvement in a suicide bombing more than two years ago in which eight people were killed. Besides this the JMB was responsible for 49 serial bombing on a single day. Prime Minister Hasina made it clear in public speeches that Bangladesh would not be allowed to become a playground of jihadis and terrorists like Pakistan. Pakistan’s policy of creating and playing with terror groups has backfired on it. It is reeling under self-grown jihadist attacks.

The Supreme Court of Bangladesh upheld a 2005 ruling by the High Court throwing out the fifth amendment of the constitution, which had allowed religion-based politics to flourish in the country during the last three decades. But Begum Zia government did not implement it. Following the apex court order, dozens of Islamic political parties must drop Islam from their name and stop using religion during their election campaigns. Religion based politics was added to the constitution by the Fifth Amendment carried out during late president Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government in 1979.This had allowed the religion-based political parties to play freely and added the Arabic “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim” or in the name of God, the most merciful, benevolent in the preamble in the constitution. Some interpreters commented that the words “Bismillahir Rahman ar Rahim” in the preamble of the constitution would remain intact as the High Court verdict did not say anything about the words and those were part of the constitution’s preamble, not of the “main body”. The word “secularism” would automatically be restored in the constitution once the Court verdict is implemented. The latest order of Bangladesh Supreme Court confirming earlier order of the High Court that the regimes in Bangladesh after Mujib assassination to 1979 ascendance of usurper Ziaur Rahman has finally invalidated the 5th amendment to the Constitution. This is a big victory for the Bangladeshi freedom fighters. Perhaps Hasina government can now proceed to nullify various other orders perpetuated by Zia and his successor government for making Bangladesh an Islamic fundamentalist nation.

The fundamentalist and reactionary leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, Islamic Chattra Shibir, Islamic Oikyo Jot, Khilafat Movement of Bangladesh and Ulema Council of Bangladesh had organized a gathering in front of Dhaka’s National Press Club and voiced protest against the Supreme Court verdict. These groups and other resurgent Islamic organisations are likely to link up with BNP and whip up protest in the ruse of Sheikh Hasina signing several agreements with India allegedly jeopardizing Bangladesh’s sovereignty and security. The pro-Pakistani and Islamist lobbies are on the verge of whipping up unrest to regain political toe hold after their humiliating defeat in last Parliamentary and local body elections. These pro-Pakistani forces, as a last resort, pick up the anti-India broom to clean up their own dirty homes.

Cracking down on organized crime, identifying and prosecuting corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, improving general law & order situation are some of other achievements of Hasina government. The U.S. government has dropped Bangladesh from its watch list following the improvement in the human rights scenario.

Despite global economic recession, the Bangladeshi economy did not suffer the way as feared by many economists and experts. The stimulus package announced by the government for vulnerable sectors helped a lot to keep the economy going. The country’s foreign exchange reserve exceeded 10 billion U.S. dollars, and inflation was pulled down to 4.69 percent in August 2009 from 10.11 percent when she formed the government on Jan. 6 last year. The flow of remittances has increased 22.4 percent from the previous year. The scenario of rural employment has improved significantly.

Another golden hue was added to the history of Bangladesh when the Bangla Supreme Court handed down death sentence on five former army officers for assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his other colleagues in and death warrant was issued against Lt. Col. Syed Farooq Rahman, Lt. Col. Sultan Sahriar Rashid Khan, Major Bazlul Huda, Maj. A. K. M. Mohiuddin Ahmed and Lt. Col Mohiuddin Ahmed. The process of prosecution had started in 1996. It took 13 years to conclude the proceedings of the most unfortunate crime committed by former army officers. The killers had enjoyed indemnity under Khondakar, Ziaur and Ershad regime. The development has, on the one hand buoyed up moral of the secular forces and on the other has set up an example to the erring army officers and pro-Pakistani forces. Several documents and evidences pointing finger at Ziaur Rahman being one of the background plotters of assassination of Mujib has embarrassed the BNP and lowered its image in public eye.

Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to Delhi has resulted in mutually beneficial agreements. Several contentious issues have been sorted out. In the 50 point historic communiqué issued after the summit meeting at Hyderabad House, PM Hasina and PM Manmohon had pledged commitment to working positively for solving all issues with the spirit of mutual respect, understanding and cooperation. The Indian government has categorically committed that nothing that harms Bangladesh will be done at Tipaimukh hydro project. The PM's also vowed to work positively to reach an agreement regarding sharing of Teesta River water. The Joint River Commission (JRC) meeting is likely to meet soon to expedite this and also on issues related to Feni, Muhuri, Khowai, Dharala and Dudkumar rivers will be held at a convenient time in the current quarter of 2010. Actions on dredging of Ichamati River and protection of Mahananda, Karotoa, Nagar, Kulik, Atrai, Dharala and Feni rivers were also agreed to be worked out. India appreciated the urgency of Bangladesh government to regenerate required water flow in all rivers and agreed to support Bangladesh initiatives to dredge rivers for flood control, navigation and access to ports. India agreed to provide dredgers on urgent basis.

The two PM’s also agreed to resolve maritime boundary disputes through mutual discussions. They acknowledged the initiation of proceedings under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and in that context India welcomed a visit of a Bangladesh delegation. Issues related to land boundary disputes were agreed to be resolved keeping in view the spirit of 1974 Land Boundary agreement. It was agreed to convene Joint Boundary Working Group to address this issue.

Bangladesh agreed to let India, Nepal and Bhutan use Mongla and Chittagong port by rail and road for trading. It was also agreed that Rohanpur-Singabad broad gauge railway link will be available for Bangladesh for transit to Nepal. Bangladesh informed India of its intention to convert Radhikapur- Birol railway line into broad gauge and requested railway transit link to Bhutan as well. To facilitate smooth trading of goods, it was agreed that trucks from Bhutan and Nepal would be allowed to enter about 200 meters into the zero point at Banglabandha at Banglabandha-Phulbari land customs station. Necessary arrangements will be mutually agreed upon and put in place by both countries.

Countries agreed to jointly combat organized terrorism, insurgency and criminal activities. Countries earlier signed to exchange convicted criminals. PM’s assured each other that the territory of either will not be allowed for activities inimical to the other, and resolved not to allow their respective territories to be used for training, sanctuary and other operations by domestic or foreign terrorist/militant and insurgent organisations and their operatives. Both prime ministers agreed that the respective border guarding forces will exercise restraint, and underscored the importance of regular meetings between the two border security forces to curtail illegal cross border activities, and to prevent loss of lives.

Apart from above Bangladesh and India earlier signed three agreements and two MOUs. Bangladesh under power trading agreement will import about 250MW power from Indian eastern grid. The actions required for Grid connectivity will be completed soon. Power trading agreement is the stepping stone to set up regional power grid and energy ring.

Besides these agreements Bangladesh has shown goodwill by arresting and handing over to India important leaders of ULFA, NLFT and NDFB organizations. Paresh Barua the military commander of ULFA has now taken shelter in China. With the improved relationship India and Bangladesh can perhaps establish a common economic zone that would benefit both the countries. In case the present trend is sustained and Sheikh Hasina’s government gets a longer lease of life Bangladesh can make enormous progress and it can invite investment by foreign countries including India for rapid economic progress and improvement of its natural resources. Several Indian investors have expressed intention to invest in power, oil exploration and other industries in Bangladesh. Hopefully, at the bilateral level some positive structures can be worked out.
It may be recalled that India and Bangladesh now jointly stand as buffer between Islamist jihadism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Southern Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. If this buffer is allowed to strengthen, both the countries can become islands of democracy and secularism in South and South East Asia. As it appears, India is ready to walk alongside Bangladesh in this mission.

The people of Bangladesh has finally proved that despite hijacking of the polity and policies of secular Bangladesh by pro-Pakistani forces and attempted Islamisation of the country from1976 to 2006, the Bengali identity, cultural values, traditions of secularism and love for freedom and liberty remain the main building blocks of the nation. The dream of Mujib’s Sonar Bangla may not materialize but the present developments present a golden hue. However, the dark clouds of machinations by pro-Pakistani BNP and Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami jihadist forces are just hibernating. They have the capability of striking against the forces of secularism and freedom movement in collaboration with their foreign mentors and moneybags. #

First published in, February 7, 2010

Maloy Krishna Dhar writes on security issues, a retired Indian intelligence officer and specialized in counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and counter-intelligence operations

Friday, February 05, 2010

Religion in politics

Photo: Islamist rampage after deadline expires to implement Sharia law and also declare the 160 million secular nation as an Islamic state
IN A move aimed at reviving the spirit of Bangladesh’s original 1972 constitution which barred religion in politics, the Bangladesh Supreme Court recently lifted a four-year stay on an earlier ruling. As a result, the country’s dozens of Islamic political parties can no longer campaign under the banner of religion, and are likely to be forced to drop the religious reference from their names. The court declared as void ab initio the relevant fifth amendment to the constitution, which was carried out in 1979 during a Bangladesh Nationalist Party government. It allowed religion-based politics — which then flourished.

Given that Bangladesh has amongst the world’s largest Muslim populations, this is a quantum leap forward. The court decision, if upheld during appeals, will affect scores of powerful political parties and their voters, including the BNP now in the opposition. Yet it is worth noting that the verdict does not affect Islam’s constitutional status as the state religion or religious text that was incorporated in the constitution. Implicit, therefore, is the recognition that whatever the dominant religion, the business of the state and politics must be conducted independently; and that far from yielding benefits in terms of just and legitimate governance, the confluence of religion and politics can wreak havoc on a country’s political fabric.

Pakistan would do well to dwell on this. Religion, when enmeshed with politics, can deepen polarities and derail the examination of issues from the perspective of logic and the aggregate national benefit. We have seen, for example, how politics and state policies underpinned by religious diktat can lead to laws that are discriminatory and can be used as tools for victimisation. The Qisas and Diyat Act, the Hudood and the blasphemy laws are cases in point. At the very least, a political fabric woven from religion will either dismiss minorities and their rights, or polarise politics between dominant and minority religions. Pakistan made the state the custodian of religion through the 1949 Objectives Resolution, which was later made the preamble to the constitution by the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government and added as an annex by Ziaul Haq. Although religious parties have not historically fared well in elections, Pakistan’s politics have, over successive decades, been coloured by religion. The separation of religion and politics will, of course, neither automatically ensure justice nor guard against the misuse of religion. But it can be a first step towards delineating the private and public spheres. This may be a good time to revisit Mr Jinnah’s 1947 address to Pakistan’s first constituent assembly, when he eloquently stated that religion had nothing to do with the business of the state. #

Editorial published in The Dawn, Pakistan, January 08, 2010

Thursday, February 04, 2010

A second Kaptai dam?

Photo: Kaptai Dam spillway in Bangladesh currency

THE NEWS heading "Another Kaptai dam for power generation: Govt seeks US help," reported in *The Daily Star*, on Friday January 22, made me consciously question: Am I reading this correctly? Is it a hoax or a mistake? Or is it a joke?

The story that followed was: "The government sought assistance from the USA in power sector for building another Kaptai dam for doubling hydropower generation from the lake waters in Rangamati hill district."

Questions arise immediately: Why hasn't there been any information on this in any news media? Why haven't local communities been informed about such a large project?

Shortly after the news was released, phone calls, e-mails, poured in from many Jumma and some non-Jumma expressing grave concerns:

"Another dam in CHT ? Using US money at the expense of Jumma land? Who knows how much Jumma land will be grabbed and then the power will be used to run factories in the plain land?"

"I wonder whether the state minister for environment had any consultation with the people of CHT before requesting for help to US government?"

"If this proposal for a second Kaptai dam is a serious proposal -- it seems so preposterous, I still have trouble believing the government would propose such a thing."

"The last dam cost us very very dearly."

"We should act immediately before its too late."

We have since learnt that even local institutions, like the Rangamati District Council and the CHT Regional Council, are looking for information on the project proposal. It has been confirmed that not a line was ever published about the project until the government sought financial assistance from the US on January 22.

Does the government really believe that another Kaptai dam is a justified, viable, sustainable development proposal?

If the government believes in another Kaptai dam project, why has the government been clandestine about the project? Why hasn't the government discussed the project with either the locals or their representatives? Why hasn't the government discussed the project in any public forum?

The Bangladesh government, as a democratic constituency, has an obligation to inform its own people about any project, which will affect them directly. In turn, its people have the right to know what will happen to them, to their homesteads, farms, woods, lives and livelihoods if another lake is created for doubling of electricity production.

There are now more questions than answers, more distrust than trust in the government. One key question arises: is this another act of treachery against the indigenous Jumma of CHT by its own government?

Our memory of the existing Kaptai dam, built in the 1960s with the assistance of USAID, without public information and local consultation, has not been erased from Jumma's collective memory. It continues to haunt thousands of Jummas of different generations.

It made 100,000 people (more than a quarter of the Jumma population) homeless and jobless. It destroyed 40 per cent of the most valuable agricultural land of the CHT. It also triggered over two decades of undeclared war.

There remain ongoing issues regarding the economic injustices against the hill people as an outcome of the inequitable sharing of electricity from the first Kaptai dam. Only a tiny amount of the promised compensation for the first dam was ever delivered and even today, about 50 years later, nearly 95 per cent of the electricity produced by the Kaptai dam is used for the development of the plains, not the CHT where the electricity is produced. Hence, there is a substantial economic debt owed to the peoples of the CHT by the state.

For the near 50 years of the existence of the Kaptai dam the CHT has suffered from a lack of electrical power. One would justifiably think that CHT should have the first priority of use of the electricity of the Kaptai dam and the surplus should go to the national grid. But instead, electricity produced by the Kaptai dam is delivered directly to the national grid, while electricity is returned to CHT only through Hathazari, a station at Chittagong district.

A respectful relationship between the CHT people and the state will remain difficult without addressing the existing economic injustices involved in the unfair distribution of electricity production. Depriving the CHT of benefit of the electricity can only exacerbate the injustices against the CHT people.

If there were ever to be another dam in the CHT, two steps seem necessary:

Firstly the financial, moral and ethical injustices that arose from the first dam be made good.

Secondly, the local people, their institutions and representatives must be substantially (not tokenistically) involved in the inception, planning, decision-making levels of the project and in its delivery and in maintenance. #

First published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh, February 4, 2010

Kabita Chakma, formally trained as an architect, is the Coordinator of CHT Jumma Peoples Network of the Asia Pacific

Monday, February 01, 2010

A Chakma in Pakistan

Photo: President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with his entire cabinet received Raja Tridiv Roy on his return from United Nations in December 1972


HE IS virtually unknown to the present generation of Pakistanis, and a fading memory for those old enough to know. But in the aftermath of 1971, when Bangladesh came into existence, Raja Tridiv Roy was quite the toast of Pakistan.

Then the titular chief of the Chittagong Hill Tract Chakmas, Mr. Roy was just one of two East Pakistan parliamentarians — Noor-ul-Amin was the other — to reject the new country, and throw in their lot with West Pakistan.

On the eve of the December 16 anniversary of the “Fall of Dhaka”, as the event is remembered in Pakistan, Mr. Roy told The Hindu in Islamabad that he has no regrets about that life-changing decision as his people continue to be discriminated against by Bangladesh.

“Chakma House”, as the small unassuming plaque on the gate says, in the leafy E-7 sector, is Mr. Roy’s home in the Pakistani capital. The coat of arms on it has dulled with time. Inside, the living room is furnished simply, and of the few paintings that adorn the walls, two are by a Bengali painter dated November 1971 portraying idyllic scenes of rural life in what was then East Pakistan.

“One of the chief reasons in my decision to support the Pakistani nation rather than the rebels in 1971 was that the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are not Bengalis, but unfortunately, the government of East Pakistan at that time was exploiting the area and the indigenous population,” said Mr. Roy.

The peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts felt more secure with the Pakistan central government, he said, even though they held it responsible for the large scale suffering of tens of thousands in the area displaced in 1960 by the building of the Kaptai Dam.

Referring to a report earlier this year by the International CHT Commission, Mr. Roy said the 1997 peace treaty between the people of the region and the Bangladesh government had yet to be implemented in letter and spirit.

“The feeling of being exploited is even more acute now,” he said, pointing to the changed demography of the region that had made the “son of the soil a minority in his own home.”

But Mr. Roy has studiously kept away from the Chakma issue over the last 38 years, and though he did not say why, one reason could be that he wanted to avoid embarrassment for Pakistan as it negotiated relations with the new Bangladesh.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto rewarded his decision to plump for Pakistan with a place in his 12-member cabinet, as minister for minority affairs, also holding the tourism portfolio. However, he never joined the Pakistan People’s Party, and even now, is not a member of any political party in this country. General Zia ul Haq sent him as envoy to Argentina, and after an unprecedented 15-year-stint in that country, Mr. Roy, who returned to Pakistan in 1996, remains a Federal Minister, but without portfolio.

In the early days, he had a reputation for his colourful personal life and the parties he threw at his home. But the 76-year-old is now a shadow of his former self. Seen at the occasional diplomatic reception, Mr. Roy cuts a lonely figure these days, though still a dapper one. He keeps a low profile, playing golf and bridge, travelling and working with Pakistan’s tiny Buddhist association.

“I’m concerned about the Chakmas, but not involved in any of the Chakma politics. I am not in touch with any of the groups, they do not seek my advice, nor do I advise any group on how they should conduct themselves,” he said.

“My overall advice is that that fight for your rights constitutionally, peacefully and do no go in for violence and killings amongst yourself and with others,” the 76-year-old Buddhist said.

He was, however, quite emphatic that he could have done nothing for his people had he chosen Bangladesh over Pakistan.

“If I had been there and not toed the government line, which I would not have been able to do,” he said, “I would have either been eliminated, put behind bars or silenced in one war or another. How would it have helped the Chakmas if I had been forced to become a stooge?”

Mr. Roy said he wanted to correct the popular impression that he ran away after the surrender of Pakistani forces on December 16. He left East Pakistan on November 11, much before the war began.

“The government of Pakistan [then led by General Yayha Khan] called me to represent the country as a special envoy, and my role was [to build international support] to prevent the impending war,” he said.

The fighting began on December 3, while he was still on a tour of south-east Asian countries. He recalled that he was in Bangkok on December 16, and returned to Pakistan on December 22. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had taken over the reins of the country by then, and asked him to join his cabinet.

Mr. Roy had been elected to the National Assembly in 1970 as the only independent candidate from the whole of East Pakistan, and with Noor-ul-Amin, was only one of two non-Awami League members in the East wing. A Buddhist, he was also the only non-Muslim in the parliament.

“He was a revered and respected head of his people. With him and Noor-ul-Amin, we were able to say that we were not without constituencies in East Pakistan,” recalled Mubashir Hassan, an associate of Bhutto and a senior cabinet colleague of Mr. Roy in that cabinet.

Bangladesh made early attempts to reclaim Mr. Roy. When the Chakma leader went to New York as leader of the Pakistani delegation in 1972, Sheikh Mujib sent his mother to persuade him to join Bangladesh, but he refused her entreaties. For this act of loyalty, he was feted by Bhutto on his return.

Most of Mr. Roy’s family, including his wife, remained behind in the new Bangladesh. Three children joined him later, but his eldest son, Debashis Roy, who remained behind with his mother and a sister, was anointed the new Chakma chief. He is a barrister in Dhaka and served in the recent interim government.

Mr. Roy, however, has never gone back to his home, Rangamati, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, all these years, nor has he ever visited Bangladesh.

“Of course, I miss my people, my home, my community,” said the ageing raja, “but circumstances and history have played a great role in my life”.

Circumstances and history, says Raja Tridiv Roy, have played a great role in his life. #

Published in The Hindu, Chennai, India, December 16, 2009

Nirupama Subramanian, The Hindu’s correspondent in Pakistan, is an award winning journalist. She is specialist of Sri Lankan current affairs