Monthly Coupon

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

India's worries could mount with Khaleda Zia's expected return to power in Bangladesh


With indications increasingly suggesting the possibility of a regime change in Dhaka in early 2014, the intelligence establishment here is worried that anti-India forces could once again get a free run to useBangladesh as a staging post for terrorism and other subversive activities.

The term of the Sheikh Hasina government, which reined in terror outfits operating from its soil, ends in January 2014. Revolving-door politics being much the norm in Bangladesh, it is likely to be the turn of Begum Khaleda Zia, Hasina's arch rival who is not known to be friendly towards India. In fact, as she rises in the charts capitalizing on Hasina's incumbency, Khaleda has also been busy painting the prime minister an Indian stooge.

The security agencies fear that Bangladesh-based subversive elements, like those aligned with fundamentalist outfit and BNP partner Jamaat-e-Islami, could resume their policy of sponsoring and sheltering insurgent groups active in northeast India which use the neighbouring country as a safe haven besides providing an infiltration route to Pakistan-sponsored terror outfits.

The communal divide between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims in parts of Assam has the potential to be exploited by Bangladeshi fundamentalists to radicalize the Muslim youth there and add muscle to home-grown terror in India.

New Delhi has got unprecedented cooperation from the Hasina regime in busting the havens of Indian insurgent groups in her country as well as in the investigation of terror incidents with Bangladeshi linkages. However, as the popularity of the Awami League regime under Hasina dips, ceding ground to rival BNP, the agencies fear that the gains of the last few years may be reversed if Khaleda regains power.

It is no secret that Pakistan's ISI has been using Bangladesh to carry out anti-India operations. Bangladeshi terror outfit HuJI enjoys close links with Pakistani tanzeems. Many of the ISI-sponsored perpetrators of terror attacks in India had either infiltrated through Bangladesh or escaped to the neighbouring country after the strikes. There are many other instances of ISI links with Bangladesh: ISI footing the election bill of Khaleda in 1991, a revelation made by none other than former ISI chief Assad Durani; NSCN cadres travelling to Pakistan from Dhaka in March 1996 for training in guerrilla warfare; an ISI-sponsored technical expert training Ulfa in operation and installation of communication equipment at a Nagaland camp; detaining of NSCN(I-M) chief T Muivah at Bangkok airport in January 2000 while returning from Karachiafter allegedly inspecting an arms consignment; and the revelation of arrested All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) cadres that ISI had extended $20,000 assistance to Tk 58 lakh to the outfit, besides imparting arms training to eight ATTF cadres in 1997 at Kandahar, Afghanistan.

With ISI and Bangladeshi group Jamaat-e-Islami allegedly funding Assam-based Muslim fundamentalist groups like Multa, Mulfa, Simi and Indian Mujahideen, it is feared that the latter may be used to exploit the tension between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims in Kokrajhar to stoke communal fires and instigate local Muslims to take to home-grown terror.

Obviously, the Indian security establishment is keen to arrest the slide in Awami League's popularity. Though there is little it can do to reverse the incumbency disadvantage, a positive development on the Teesta water-sharing pact, financial assistance for the Padma Bridge project and exchange of enclaves may go a long way in correcting the negative perception in Bangladesh that Hasina has not managed any major concessions from India. However, these will be possible only after UPA's troublesome ally, the Trinamool Congress, is convinced to drop its reservations on Teesta and the enclaves.

Even as efforts will intensify over the next year to recover lost ground for Hasina, senior intelligence officials here claimed that Khaleda's BNP alliance, saddled by corruption cases and expected conviction of its leaders by war crimes tribunals, could see a reversal in its growing popular perception closer to the polls, expected sometime in February 2014.

First published in Times of India, TNN, August 29, 2012

Monday, August 20, 2012

Microfinance pioneer Grameen Bank weakened by government meddling

AP Photo/John McConnico Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus speaks to the Associated Press during an interview at his hotel in Oslo, Norway Saturday Dec. 9, 2006. Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh seems bent on destroying the best elements of the Grameen Bank, whose loans to poor women inspired a global movement now enabling more than 135 million borrowers to become self-employed. More than a year ago, she engineered the spectacularly illogical dismissal of Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Prize-winning founder and managing director of Grameen Bank. Hasina rode roughshod over the bank’s own board’s decisions and bylaws in imposing a mandatory retirement on Professor Yunus, ostensibly because of his age. (She seems not to have been troubled by issuing that dictate through her minister of finance who, himself, was many years older than Yunus.)

But not content to have removed Yunus, whose worldwide fame seems both Bangladesh’s most notable asset and Prime Minister Hasina’s most aggravating cause of envy, she has now moved to gut the Grameen Bank’s fundamental premise of governance: that the women who comprise the bank’s clientele should have a controlling voice in its policies and programs. In a region not notable for women’s rights, this leadership position by the Grameen Bank has been salutary for the bank, a model for other institutions and an inspiration to all those seeking to advance the well-being of women and their families.

What exactly is Prime Minister Hasina’s latest plan? Very simple: Trash the Grameen Bank’s historically successful model of a borrower-dominated board that has the power to elect the managing director of this bank, in which the borrowers are the leading shareholders. And replace that process with what? Let’s see. What could be the most disempowering, backward, ham-handed, intrusive alternative one could imagine?

Eureka! Have the government-appointed chair of the board summarily appoint the managing director! Forget about the decades-long organic evolution of women’s leadership in both governance and management at Grameen Bank. Just empower Hasina’s crony chair to install a managing director, who will reliably turn the bank into a compliant arm of the Hasina administration — an administration whose appreciation of this international treasure, if such appreciation exists, is no barrier to envy-driven decisions that simultaneously compromise both the bank’s all-important independence and the administration’s own already shabby reputation.

It would be easy, and wrong, to dismiss this as a tempest in a teapot. Beyond its role in pioneering microfinance and poverty-reduction programs that have now been adopted worldwide, Grameen Bank is a shining global model of what it means to empower women — even, and especially, poor rural women. These women not only comprise 97 percent of the bank’s borrowers, but they actually own more than 95 percent of the equity in the bank. Accordingly and appropriately, women hold nine of the 12 seats on the board. And it is little noted but no small thing that the Nobel Peace Prize accepted by Muhammad Yunus was actually awarded to him and to those women — that is, to the bank itself, which they have built and, until Prime Minister Hasina butted in, have successfully controlled.

At this moment, a hand-picked Bangladeshi government commission is “studying” Grameen Bank to find ways to “improve and protect” it. Rodgers and Hammerstein captured this situation perfectly in “The King and I,” when the king, reflecting on foreign “allies” increasing their role in Siam, sings, “Might they not protect me out of all I own?”

What can be done? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Dhaka in May to urge Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Dipu Moni to take no action that would undermine Grameen Bank. In addition, the 17 women who currently serve in the U.S. Senate have sent a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister Hasina.
And this communiqué was issued by our State Department earlier this month:
“We call on the Government of Bangladesh to respect the integrity, effectiveness, and independence of Grameen Bank. We urge the Bangladeshi Government to ensure transparency in the selection of a new managing director who has unquestioned integrity, competence, and dedication to preserving Grameen Bank, its unique governance structure, and its effectiveness in bringing development and hope to 8.3 million of Bangladesh’s most vulnerable citizens, mostly women.”
It has seemingly always been the case that enlightened advances forged over decades by millions of dedicated people working together can be trashed with astounding finality by one misguided ‘leader.’ We owe it to those who created Grameen Bank, and to history, to show that such travesties are not inevitable. Citizens wishing to add their voices to this urgent call for preservation of a global treasure can sign on to a petition by searching ‘ Grameen Bank.’”

This is not a futile exercise. The worldwide firestorm over the ousting of Muhammad Yunus still reverberates in Hasina-administration deliberations. A fresh onslaught of petitions on this new issue may give them some pause. And perhaps even more important, our loud protests can mobilize the voters of Bangladesh, who, ultimately, must decide if their democratically elected prime minister should be allowed to demolish their country’s most celebrated contribution to its own people and the global community.

Eliot Daley is a Princeton writer. Contact him at

First published in New Jersey dot com: August 18, 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: The Unfinished Memoirs: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

The Unfinished Memoirs: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Publisher: Viking
Indian Rs. 
699 pp 324

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first ruler of Bangladesh, lived an event-filled life, not to speak of creating quite a few of the events, including leading the movement almost single-handed to carve out the nation. His memoirs are therefore not only of interest to his countrymen but a valuable source of history of post-colonial South Asia. Mujibur’s story also stands out in the context of the unique saga of Bangladesh, born first as the eastern wing of Pakistan, the home of Indian Muslims, but tearing itself apart as a separate entity for unbridgeable cultural differences with the communal mother nation’s ‘Punjabi’ core.

But Mujibur’s Memoirs, as it confesses, is “unfinished”, and that’s a sad story. His daughter Sheikh Hasina, the present prime minister of Bangladesh, in her preface, recounts how she got hold of some of his diaries and notebooks after returning to her country in 1981. A decade earlier, when Pakistan army personnel cracked down on East Pakistan and raided Mujibur’s house, they looted everything except his scribbling, which they thought unworthy of making a bonfire. So the papers remained in a chest next to his bedroom. In 1975, after some dissident army officers had assassinated Mujibur with his family members (Hasina and her sister Rehana were miraculously away from the country), the house was sealed by the junta that took over, and the papers remained in the chest until another violent regime change, enabling Hasina to lay hands on her father’s notes. But it took her more than two decades more to discover her father’s autobiography, written in Bengali. Memoirs is its English translation.

The problem is, it is unfinished. Far from taking the story anywhere near its climax of Bangladesh’s birth, the narrative vanishes somewhere in the 1950s. So there are plenty of faces and voices of the Pakistan movement, the partition and the birth of Bangladeshi sub-nationalism, but little on the questions that still puzzle those following Mujibur’s life: what were his so-called linkages with Indira Gandhi’s government in New Delhi prior to the liberation war, and, why, after assuming power, did he fail to keep his personal enemies and covert agents of Pakistan at bay? The late diplomat JN Dixit’s book Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations is a treasure trove of unexpected, if not contrarian, ideas, but Mujibur’s own version would have brought us closer to the felt reality.

The book ends, rather abruptly, sometime after the first election in 1954 to the East Pakistan legislative assembly, in which the Awami League trounced the Muslim League. It turned on its head, for the first time perhaps, the League’s crude belief that nationalism could subsist on religion alone. But it does not explore in Mujibur the seed of the independent leader that later developments proved him as. On the other hand, the autobiography shows him as a rather fawning acolyte of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a shrewd politician remembered by many in West Bengal as the architect of the Great Calcutta Killings in 1946. Suhrawardy was in fact a bundle of contradictions, an avid proponent of liberal parliamentary democracy after he emerged as a top leader in Pakistan (prime minister between 1956 and 1957) but the first person to lead the country onto a path of frenzied military expansion. Educated in Oxford and a successful barrister in Calcutta, he was also a class apart from hick town politician Mujibur in his taste, chasing champagne parties and European blondes. In the book, there is only gushing praise.

What the book has in abundance are the details of a politically intense but clubby life led by the author in Calcutta and Dhaka. In Kolkata’s Maulana Azad College (known as Islamia College before Partition), he struggled to “achieve Pakistan” with millions of coreligionists. But he is at his best in chronicling Dhaka after Partition, when its politics shifted its focus to “achieve” a new Bengal which is a province of Pakistan in name but actually a nation in the making.

Sheikh Hasina has astutely enriched the book with a large collection of old photographs capturing moments that would otherwise have been water under the bridge. In a picture shot with the author standing near the door and the Mahatma in the middle, Suhrawardy by his side, much of their inner calculations find expression — Mujibur the young man insistent on “achieving” the promised land, Suhrawardy open to bargain and the Mahatma eager to let the Muslims feel that they were safe till he was around. The year: 1947.

Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer for Hindustan Times

First published in the Hindustan Times, August 18, 2012

Saturday, August 18, 2012

‘The Assam clashes are about land and livelihood, not religion’

 AS BERTIL LINTNER mentions in the introduction of Great Game East, the expression “Great Game” was originally used to denote the struggle between two western powers to wrest control of energy-rich Central Asia. Across the Himalayas, in the east, another great game has been on for some time now between the two Asian giants — India and China. The fight began over Tibet and now includes Northeast India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Indian Ocean. Lintner has even devoted one chapter to Indo-Bangladesh relations in his book. Here, he talks to Kunal Majumder about the ongoing violence in Assam and how the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), once a nationalist movement, ended up becoming a pawn in the great game.

Your book has an entire chapter on the relationship between Assam and Bangladesh. What is your reading of the ongoing situation in Assam?TEHELKA described it quite well. It’s not religious. It’s not Muslims versus Hindus. It’s a struggle for land. There is a lot of pressure on land both because of increase in internal population and massive migration from Bangladesh. Naturally, people from Bangladesh are Muslims and that adds that dimension to it.
But certain interests in India are calling it a grand design to Islamise Assam. Do you find any credibility in such assumptions?
It is possible. But I’m not sure if it is the main reason people are moving from Bangladesh into India. Certainly, Islamic groups will want to take advantage of the situation. Migration to India, first from East Pakistan, and then Bangladesh has always been there. One reason this happens in Assam is votebank politics. If you look back at the Assam Agitation, it was a movement against the so-called foreigners moving into Assam. Not only Bangladeshis, Nepalis too were being evicted. It is not about religion, it is about land and livelihood.
Isn’t it ironical that the ULFA based its politics on an anti-Bangladeshi immigrant stance but eventually accepted Dhaka’s help to fight India?
The ultimate irony is that the movement began as an anti-foreigner movement — less Nepal, more Bangladesh — and they have been exiled in Bangladesh. Assamese militants I met in Bangladesh were not happy to be there but they thought they had no choice. They were being used by Bangladesh intelligence services to create trouble in India. The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), more than the Awami League, were behind this policy. Things shifted in Bangladesh depending on who was in power. If the Awami League was in power, the ULFA was sent to Thailand. When Sheikh Hasina came to power for the first time in the 1990s, the entire leadership arrived in Bangkok save Paresh Barua, who was too useful for the Bangladeshi security establishment. He was close to Pakistan’s ISI as well.
The ULFA has now split. Almost everyone in the top leadership is negotiating with the Government of India. Where does Paresh Barua’s future lie?
I first met Barua in 1985 in a Naga camp in northwestern Burma. The Burmese army attacked the camp. He was an excellent fighter, much better than any other Naga. Unlike Arabinda Rajkhowa, who was more intellectually motivated, Barua was the most militant of all ULFA leaders and more politically motivated. The second time I met Barua was in Bangkok. He had come from Singapore, where he revealed that the ISI were encouraging the ULFA to increase their activities in Assam because troops were being withdrawn from the Northeast for Kashmir. It was in Pakistan’s interest to reignite some kind of unrest in the region so that India could move its troops back from Kashmir. This was quite telling. I was quite surprised he was ready to tell me that. I met him for the third time in a safe house in Dhaka, escorted by two Bangladeshi intelligence officers, who were not particularly happy to see me around. Whether you sympathise with them or not but from being a nationalist movement, the ULFA became a pawn in the hands of the establishment of all countries.

Kunal Majumder is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka. email

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dhaka Forecloses the Grameen Brand

Bangladesh's government is taking over the pioneering microfinance bank, just as its founder feared


FOR THE past 18 months in Bangladesh, the specter of a government takeover has haunted Grameen Bank and its founder, Nobel Prize winner Muhammed Yunus. Many thought Mr. Yunus was imagining the threat, but this month the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina finally showed its hand. Her cabinet decided to push the microfinance lender's elected board of trustees aside and give power to the government-appointed chairman to name a selection committee that will soon find a new managing director.

The decision marks a new turn in a campaign to vilify Mr. Yunus, which began last year when the government removed him from his long-time role as managing director. Then it ginned up a controversy that micro lenders were "loan sharks," when the opposite is true: These banks give poor borrowers an alternative to usurious moneylenders.

This time, the cabinet impugned Mr. Yunus's honesty by asking questions about whether he followed bank rules on tapping the bank's credit facilities when he was managing director. It also alleges that he wrongly received tax exemptions on his foreign earnings. Last week, it opened a tax investigation.

Grameen Bank is important because it established the microfinance model--banks that provide unsecured loans for poor women for investing in income earning projects. It has been copied throughout the world and inspired the phenomenal growth of micro finance. In 2006, both the Bank and Yunus were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for, as the Nobel committee put it, "their efforts to create economic and social development from below." By giving the poor the ability to help themselves, it undermines the culture of dependency on the government that ties the poor to Bangladesh's political parties.

In May 2011, I visited Dhaka and talked at length with Mr. Yunus, whom I have known since the early 1990s. He had been under attack by the Awami League government for some time. Even after he was removed from his position, he sought to ensure that the bank board could still elect his successor without political interference. It now seems all but certain that the bank he led to international renown will come under new management.

Many Bangladeshis I respect told me then, and still think today, that the Awami League is out to get Mr. Yunus by any means possible. The politicians believe, wrongly, that he is a long-term threat to their interests.

Many suspect that the root of the problem is that, when Bangladesh was under a military caretaker government in 2007, Mr. Yunus's name was briefly put forward in 2007 as a possible leader of a "third force" to replace the two dysfunctional major political parties led by Ms. Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Their personal animosity has made progress impossible. He never volunteered this idea, but he didn't reject it at first either. Nevertheless, this third party never took off.

In addition, most Bangladeshis say that Grameen Bank now provides low-hanging fruit for what is perceived as a corrupt government. Officials can loot the bank's substantial assets at will now. They can also tap its customer base of women borrowers and turn them into a serious vote bank by promises of loan reductions or write-offs.

World leaders need to take note of these perverse motivations in Dhaka and condemn them, but they aren't doing so. I came back to Washington after my 2011 visit feeling great foreboding about Grameen's future. The South and Central Asian Bureau of the U.S. State Department, however, did not share my concerns when I met with its officials. Their reaction was tepid then. Now, more than a year later with news of the cabinet's decision, I am told they are "working on it."

For all the laurels Mr. Yunus has received from the West, his strategy to protect the bank he founded didn't work, partly because Western governments failed him. In the 15 months since the attack on Grameen began, the U.S. and others have let themselves be distracted by other business and lulled into complacency by Ms. Hasina's waiting game.

Now it may be too late to save the bank. The U.S. is playing catch-up on an issue on which it had an early warning. By this time, Prime Minister Hasina is not inclined to listen to other governments and back off her determined course. I am sure it will take more than words to deflect it. The U.S. and European governments will have to threaten to cut off bilateral assistance programs and other aid through multilateral institutions like the World Bank.

Getting donors on the same page at such a late date will be a real uphill battle, and given all the other pressing issues in South Asia is a long shot. It is thus with a heavy heart that we must prepare for the disappearance of the pioneer of microfinance and the marginalization of its visionary founder.

William Milam is a former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

First published in the Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2012

Monday, August 13, 2012

Assam: Demographic Invasion

Photo: Victims of racial riots in tears in make-shift camps

MORE THAN three decades of ethnic and communal strife, as well as multiple insurgencies, in Assam, have never seen a significant echo outside the Northeast, other than the occasional arrest of, or incident involving, a militant hiding out in some distant part of the country. Indeed, the violence of India's wider Northeast has remained almost hermetically sealed within the region since its beginnings in 1951, with the Naga insurrection.

Abruptly, a local - albeit sizeable - conflagration in the Bodoland Territorial Administrated Districts (BTAD) of Assam has found violent reverberations in Mumbai and Pune in Maharashtra, Ranchi in Jharkhand, as well as parts of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. even as communal organizations from Delhi and other parts of the country send 'fact finding missions' into the affected areas in Assam, to conclude that a great conspiracy against the State's 'Muslim citizens' is afoot. The purported 'Muslim anger' over developments in the Bodo areas has congealed with apparent distress over the treatment and violent displacement of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. India's 'failure' to 'do enough' for the Rohingyas was one of the supposed triggers for the 'protest' in Mumbai and Ranchi, which culminated in pre-planned rioting on August 11, 2012.

Curiously, little notice has been taken here of Muslim-majority Bangladesh's inflexible position that Rohingya refugees would receive neither admission into nor shelter on, Bangladeshi soil. Indeed, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rather curtly told British Secretary of International Development Affairs Andrew Mitchell in London, that 'countries including Britain, which are concerned over the Rohingya issue, should hold talks with Myanmar instead of putting pressure on Bangladesh.' If the Indian leadership was susceptible to learning anything, it would see a strong lesson here.

Unfortunately, leaderships and administrators in this country remain tenaciously uneducable. Far from seeing the intentional mischief in the present troubles, they have sought to impose a pall of confusion over the most basic issues, claiming that the violence in the Bodo areas has no relationship to the long unresolved, and implicitly encouraged, problem of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Thus, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi baldly claimed, on July 27, 2012, "There are no Bangladeshis in the clash but Indian citizens."

Successive administrations in Assam have refused to address, and indeed, have sought vigorously to cover up, the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration that has destabilized the State and the wider Northeast for decades now. The general pretext has been that no authoritative estimate of illegal migrant populations is available, but this begs the question, since it is the administration that is required to produce such an estimate, and has defaulted persistently on this duty. Indeed, even the Supreme Court's goading on this issue has fallen largely on deaf ears, or has met with fitful efforts at 'compliance', quickly abandoned at the first signs of predictable resistance.

On July 12, 2005, the Supreme Court of India noted that Assam was facing "external aggression and internal disturbance" on account of the large-scale illegal influx of Bangladeshi migrants, and that it was "the duty of the Union of India to take all measures for protection of the State of Assam from such external aggression and internal disturbance as enjoined in Article 355 of the Constitution."

In 2005, the Centre decided to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) 'within two years', on the basis of the 1971 rolls. The exercise failed to take off. On April 22, 2009, during tripartite discussions between the Central and State Governments, and the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Government promised to initiate NRC updates in two revenue circles, Chaygaon in Kamrup District and Barpeta revenue circle in Barpeta District. The process commenced on June 7, 2010, as a pilot project, but almost immediately ran into trouble, with 'law and order problems' surfacing in Barpeta. On July 21, 2010, protestors under the banner of the Barpeta District Unit of the All Assam Muslim Students Union (AAMSU), demonstrated violently outside the Deputy Commissioner's Office, demanding a halt to the process. Police eventually opened fire, killing four and injuring 50. While no official suspension was announced, the 'pilot project' stood abandoned from this point on.

On March 26, 2012, the Government announced the 'decision' to re-launch the Registrar General of Citizens' Registration pilot project to update the NRC in three phases from July 1, 2012. AAMSU, with 24 other 'minority organizations' objected to the decision. The process has not begun till date.

Over the intervening years, Governments, both at the Centre and in the State have done much to muddy the waters. The most perverse initiative was the introduction of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act of 1983 (IMDT Act), ostensibly intended to 'facilitate' the quick detection and expulsion of illegal migrants, but, in fact, designed to disable the far more effective provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946, which continue to apply to the rest of the country. With action initiated only on the basis of a complaint, not suo moto by state agencies, and the onus of proof shifted from the accused to the complainant, the IMDT made it nigh impossible to identify and expel any significant number of illegal migrants. The Supreme Court thus noted, in 2005, that though enquiries were initiated in 310,759 cases under the IMDT Act, only 10,015 persons were declared illegal migrants, and even among these, just 1,481 illegal migrants had been expelled in the duration of the Act, till April 30, 2000. On the contrary, it was noted, that West Bengal, where the Foreigners Act was applicable, and which also faced a major problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh, 489,046 persons had been deported between 1983 and November 1998, a significantly lesser period. The IMDT Act, the Court observed, "is coming to the advantage of such illegal migrants as any proceeding initiated against them almost entirely ends in their favour, (and) enables them to have a document having official sanctity to the effect that they are not illegal migrants."

In September 2000, the Supreme Court had directed the Union Government to repeal the IMDT Act by January 2001. The then Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government at the Centre failed to comply, claiming it did not have the requisite numbers in the Upper House. Unsurprisingly, the present Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government failed to initiate any process to implement the Supreme Court's standing orders, till the Court struck down the IMDT Act in its order of July 12, 2005. Nevertheless, the Congress continues to contest every move seeking any change to the status quo that it has engineered on illegal immigrants in Assam, on its own cynical electoral calculus.

In the interim, efforts to 'regularize' illegal migrant populations and entrench their 'rights' in what should be protected tribal areas, on the basis of opportunistic arrangements with militant formations seeking accommodation with the State, have continued through the disastrous Assam Accord of 1985 and, more significantly in the present context, the Bodo Accord of 2003. Under the latter Accord, the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, intended to protect the special rights of vulnerable Tribal populations, was amended to guarantee the land rights of 'all communities' living in the BTAD. It is this unprincipled and opportunistic legislation that is being used by Muslim communalists within and outside Assam to claim that all Muslims in the BTAD are Indian citizens with constitutional protection to the lands they have acquired.

Through all this, the sheer enormity of the demographic reengineering in the region has been entirely ignored. Since no Government has committed itself to a detailed enumeration of citizens or of illegal migrants, there are, of course, no 'official' estimates of the actual illegal migrant population in Assam. Nevertheless, authoritative estimates have periodically come into the open source from official quarters.

In 2005, then Assam Governor Lt. Gen. Ajai Singh, in a report to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), leaked to the Press, had claimed that "upto 6,000" Bangladeshis enter Assam every day. The statement was subsequently modified under pressure from the Congress to claim that the number applied to Bangladeshis entering India, not Assam alone. A 2001 UMHA estimate claimed that "150 to 170 lakh (15 to 17 million) Bangladeshi infiltrators have crossed into India illegally since 1971." Again, on July 14, 2004, the then Union Minister of State for Home, Shriprakash Jaiswal, conceded in Parliament that, out of 12,053,950 illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators all over India, 5,000,000 were present in Assam alone."

Census figures also provide significant indices for the scale of infiltration. The Provisional Census 2011 indicated that Assam's population, at 31,169,272, had registered an increase of 4,513,744 over the preceding decade. Of the State's 27 Districts, Dhubri, bordering Bangladesh, had recorded the highest growth, at 24.4 percent. The decadal growth rate for Assam, at 16.93 per cent, was lower than the overall national growth, at 17.64 per cent. Details of trends in various population groupings under the Census 2011 are yet to be released.

2011 Census data clearly suggests that the scale of infiltration has declined. Between 1971 and 1991, the Muslim population in Assam grew by 77.42 per cent as against 41.89 per cent for Hindus. Between 1991 and 2001, again, the corresponding figures were 29.3 per cent for Muslims and 14.95 per cent for Hindus. The result was that, currently, of 27 Districts in Assam, at least six have 60 per cent Muslim population, while another six have over 40 per cent Muslims. And of the 126 Assembly seats, 54 Members of Legislative Assembly, are dependent on Muslim 'vote banks'.

There are numerous troubles between a multiplicity of communities in Assam, and the Indian leadership and administration has failed to keep pace with contemporary trends, with the growth of populations, and with the transformation, opportunities and challenges of new technologies and processes. At base, every administration has to be anchored in principles of justice, efficiency and honesty. If this is the case, law and order automatically falls into place. When there is occasional trouble, people turn to the authorities and not to radical and armed extremist formations.

Unfortunately, the integrity of administrations has been comprehensively compromised across India, and more so in the States of the Northeast. The communalization of politics, a trend that commenced well before Partition, has progressed through the decades of Independence, even under and within purportedly 'secular' parties. The external environment has also been radicalized, with a jihadi ideology now entrenched in Pakistan finding reverberations across the world, and, at least in some measure, in India as well. It is significant, in this context, to note that, Lafikul Islam, the 'publicity secretary' of the All Bodoland Muslim Student's Union (ABMSU), had warned the State Government on July 7, 2012, that, if the 'culprits' of the violence of July 6, 2012, were not arrested within 24 hours and the atrocities against the minorities did not end, ABMSU would declare jihad and take up arms. Within the current international milieu, such sentiments are sure to find their echoes among the Islamist lunatic fringe - and its mirrors in other communities - pushing India into a widening conflagration.

India's administrators, enforcement and intelligence officials cannot, within the current global context, continue to remain as ignorant as they evidently are, both of local trends within their jurisdictions, and of international trends impinging on perceptions and motivations of local populations. There is evidence that the current cycle of violence was at least partially linked to Bodo-Muslim competition to encroach on forest land, in the latter case, for the construction of an Idgah in the Bedlangmari area in Kokrajhar. However minor such an incident may appear to be on the surface, no competent administrator or intelligence operative could possibly ignore its potential for mischief - and yet, this is precisely what happened. Vast areas of forest and public land in Assam are being progressively encroached upon, with full connivance of the administration, and this cannot continue without consequences.

Law and order in India can no longer be maintained without understanding the subtle trends in violence all over the world. Terrorism and insurgency are no doubt significant patterns that will demand our attention, but there are other patterns of low-grade violence - such as the rioting in the Bodo areas - which will challenge the state progressively, especially, where terrorist and insurgent movements begin to fail. Unless administrators, police leaders and intelligence operatives are sensitive to past trends, social contexts, and international developments, they will continue to fail to respond effectively. There is tremendous need, today, to enlarge the training programmes for the superior services, whose officers are being found wanting in crises with increasing frequency.

Above all, the corrupt politics of vote banks and crass electoral calculi, to the manifest detriment of the national interest, must be defeated. India's diversity can only be held together by the unity of law and of justice, not by the unprincipled horse-trading that governs politics today.

K.P.S. Gill is publisher, SAIR; President, Institute for Conflict Management

First published in South Asia Terrorism Portal, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 11, No. 6, August 13, 2012

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Illegal migration not a bilateral conflict

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni speaks to Barkha Dutt, an Indian television journalist and Group Editor with NDTV on the issue of migration from Bangladesh to India and water sharing treaty between the two countries. Here is the full transcript:

Barkha Dutt: This session of Parliament might well see the UPA government seeking a ratification of the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh. It's just one of the many issues between India and Bangladesh that could be resolved, but are awaiting the crossing of that last lap. Of course, in India there is also, now, a raging controversy over the issue of migration from Bangladesh into India. Here, in Dhaka, to take us through some of those issues is Bangladesh's Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni. Pleasure talking to you, Ma'am.

Dr Moni: Wonderful talking to you.

Barkha Dutt: Let me start by asking you, there was so much expectation of the Teesta Accord coming through between India and Bangladesh, the two Governments, of course, reached a consensus. And then domestic politics within India, in a sense, played obstacle. How seriously could this issue impact the larger relationship between Delhi and Dhaka?

Dr Moni: Well, as the relationship between our two countries stands now, I would say it is excellent. And it's the same spirit that we had in 1971; I think it's that kind of spirit that we're experiencing between the two countries, the way both the countries are collaborating with each other. And, during the landmark visit of our Prime Minister to Delhi in 2010, the Joint Declaration that the two Prime Ministers signed, I mean, that had many things in it. And over the years, over the last two years, both governments have worked very hard to implement those. And, I would say, we have done quite a lot. We have done quite a lot and a lot has been achieved. What; You talk about the expectation about the Teesta.

Barkha Dutt: Of course there was great disappointment...

Dr Moni: Just before the visit of Dr Manmohan Singh to Dhaka, there was this expectation, and very high, that the Teesta Accord will be signed. Unfortunately, it didn't...

Barkha Dutt: ...Materialise?

Dr Moni: Materialise. But, a lot of other things happened. And if we look at the positives that happened, quite substantial and we are very happy with those. But, definitely, if we could have had Teesta it would have been perfect. But you deal with imperfections all the time. So yes, people are disappointed, people, people in Bangladesh, we would like to see Teesta really done and we are waiting; and we would like it to be sooner rather than later.

Barkha Dutt: Is it your understanding that it will be delivered upon?

Dr Moni: Well, I believe, between the two countries, given the relationship, it's only natural that we would have this Accord; and would have this water treaty. And we have, we share, 54 common rivers. If we do this one, it will only be a second one. So what we have done already, during Dr Manmohan Singh's visit, is that we have signed a co-operation, a framework co-operation agreement. And, in that agreement, we have talked about dealing with the water issues in a holistic manner doing the basin-wide management of the rivers; so that is, I think, tremendous progress on this front. So, I'm not unhappy at all with the progress that we have made but, definitely, we would like to have Teesta. And, as I said, it's only the second one. So, it will be delivered; I'm sure, I'm sure.

Barkha Dutt: Were you surprised at Mamata Banerjee's statements and have you tried to, independently, reach out to her since then?

Dr Moni: Well we knew it was not going to be signed just, just, before the ...

Barkha Dutt: Just on the eve of it, yes.

Dr Moni: Just on the eve of it, and very late; but we didn't know why, at that moment.

Barkha Dutt: Since then she has made statements that there is not enough water for West Bengal.

Dr Moni: Yes, yes.  But I have visited her; I have met her once during my, on my way back from Bengaluru, after attending the IORAC meeting. And we discussed, of course, Teesta was one of the issues, and...

Barkha Dutt: What was your reading? Did you think that she would come around?

Dr Moni: Well, she said, she gave me her views and, obviously, I gave our view, which is, it is a common river, it is a common river, and there are rights of many, many people. And it's not the question of someone giving it to another; one person giving it to another, it's sharing. And if we have less water, we will share that lesser amount. It's all about sharing and between two neighbours, that's what we need to do.

Barkha Dutt: The transit-rights' issue that India and Bangladesh have been trying to work out for India to have faster access to parts of its own country in the East. How much of that is based on a reciprocal understanding that Teesta will be delivered by Delhi. And don't give me the diplomat's answer; give me the real answer.

Dr Moni: We are, we are, working on the transit issue because it is a very big issue; because it consists of the road transit, the rail transit and also the water transit. So we have, actually, engaged a task force, a core committee, which looked at the whole issue; and, because this is new for us, we tried to look at other comparable situations in other parts of the world, and have come up with a, a, framework and we are now looking at what we need in terms of infrastructure, in terms of legal, what do I call it ...

Barkha Dutt: Modalities?

Dr Moni: Legal instruments, where are the gaps; and now we have identified the gaps and infrastructure development, it takes time.

Barkha Dutt: But politically...

Dr Moni: But legal instruments, we're working on them. On infrastructure, both sides, we are working on them. So it will take a little time. I wouldn't say one is dependent on the other but it would be very nice if we could have Teesta.

Barkha Dutt: Is that another way of saying, if Teesta were delivered on, transit rights would move faster?

Dr Moni: Transit would. No, transit is moving at its own pace. Yes, it hasn't been stuck anywhere. It's moving, our work is going because we, this is something we, believe in, because we believe in regional connectivity.

Barkha Dutt: It's not conditional? It's not conditional on Teesta?

Dr Moni: I don't think so. I don't think it's conditional on Teesta. But, definitely, having Teesta would, definitely, be helpful.

Barkha Dutt: Another area of agreement that seeks the next step is, what's called, the land swap deal which are the enclaves on which Bangladesh and India have agreed to, virtually, swap these areas and give these people who haven't had citizenship right, on either side, those rights. Now this needs a Constitutional Amendment in India and a two-thirds majority in Parliament. So it not just needs the allies of the Congress Party's support, but also needs other groups. I'm sure you're aware about the real politics that drive this. Are you expecting this to go through soon or do you understand that domestic politics could mean that this could take a long time?

Dr Moni: This is ratification that is needed and we have been waiting. In fact both countries have been waiting for quite a long time. It's not '71; it goes back a long, long time. And, I believe, India will deliver.

Barkha Dutt: Is there a time frame?

Dr Moni: Well, I wouldn't. I wouldn't put any time frame because I can say what I, as a person, am going to do, but how can I say anything about a Parliament? You have so many people, and in their Parliament they have different ways of dealing with things, and they have their own pace. So how can you really?

Barkha Dutt: Let me ask you in another way. How patient is the political will here, in terms of understanding that there is a government here, which has its own majority, but there is a government in Delhi, which doesn't have its own majority? So the decision-making capacity is, naturally, influenced much more by domestic politics.

Dr Moni: See, at the same time, even during the Indian Law Minister's visit to Bangladesh, he was representing India in our celebration of 90 years bijoy, of Kazi Nazrul Islam, and he also had Members of Parliament belonging to the Opposition and they all spoke in one voice about being good neighbours and good friends with Bangladesh; and they did talk about the foreign policy of India, being something where they all come together. If a government has promised something to a neighbour or to another country, that, irrespective to whether someone is in opposition or in office, they would be supported. So, that was the, that was the understanding given to us by, as recently as I would say, two months ago. And the other thing is that this is something that has remained as an unresolved issue between the two countries for quite some time. And both countries are looking forward to resolving those long-pending issues and, I believe, India is as eager as Bangladesh is in resolving these issues. So, I hope that it is done soon.

Barkha Dutt: The border between India and Bangladesh is the root of many, many, many conflicts. And, for India, and you must have followed what's happening in India, the issue of migration from Bangladesh into India has become a very serious point of national debate; and that is because of the recent, very tragic, conflagration in the Eastern state of Assam. We have had our principle Opposition party, again, talking about deporting, what they call illegal migrants from Bangladesh. This case is now even in the courts of the country. Talking about this, it's a very emotive and a very volatile issue in India. How does the government here, in Dhaka, view this?

Dr Moni: Well, we had, you see; this whole region we have to; whenever we talk about migration, we have to know about the history. And there we have had migration in 1947; we have had migrations also in 1971. But during 1971, India hosted nearly 10 million of our people. But, I would say, most of them returned to Bangladesh after our Independence, after the Liberation. Since '71, how many people have crossed the border, either way, I don't know. We don't have any figures.

Barkha Dutt: Because the border is so porous...

Dr Moni: Border is porous and there is always to-ing and fro-ing all the time; and families, the way the borders were drawn, families were always going back and forth from both sides. So, I don't have any figures, we don't have any figures, whether in Assam or anywhere, or in Bangladesh of people who migrated.

Barkha Dutt: But when you hear of political parties in India talk about deporting, what they call illegal migrants, does that concern you? If that were to happen, because it could happen if the court ordered it; that has happened in the past, what would be the response of Bangladesh?

Dr Moni: When these people migrated that would, since when these people are there, that would definitely be something to look at. And, I'm sure, the legal issues that are concerned may be settled; and once these issues are settled, only then can we say.

Barkha Dutt: You don't see it as a point of bilateral conflict?

Dr Moni: I don't see it as a bilateral conflict, no, because this hasn't been raised with us, at least not in the recent past, no. There are economic migrations going on in so many places but the, this hasn't been, this hasn't been an issue that was raised with us. So, I wouldn't, I wouldn't term it as a bilateral issue. If there is something that is going wrong with Assam, they would have to look at the, because...

Barkha Dutt: Because there isn't actually agreement as to whether they are settlers or migrants, but then, the key question would be if migration still continues?

Dr Moni: Migration happened, so these are also some factual, some legal questions, so I wouldn't like to comment on that.

Barkha Dutt: But you know that, just at a humanitarian basis, one of the things that could come up, because this debate is happening in India right now, and the international debate is on Bangladesh's refusal to take in refugees from Burma, the Rohingyas; and, therefore, a number of people will say that of course, the humanitarian refuge was given to mass migration in, in for example, 1971. But then, shouldn't Bangladesh be doing the same for the Rohingyas today? And if it isn't, then why isn't it understanding that political parties are objecting to Bangladeshi migration?

Dr Moni: You see, Rohingyas coming into Bangladesh; that also has a history. And that is very different.

Barkha Dutt: No, I'm not doing a literal comparison but the principle of it.

Dr Moni: Yes. You see, Bangladesh has never forgotten 1971 and that is why, when the Rohingyas entered, there was a mass entry of mass expatriates from Myanmar into Bangladesh in 1979 and then also in 1992; we let them in. And we have been, I would say, very gracious hosts to a large number of Myanmar refugees, and until 2005, most of them went back. They were repatriated. About 24,000 of them were left and then the repatriating process completely stopped. And in the meantime, say about, now it's an estimate, between three hundred to five thousand illegal entrants into Bangladesh. They're now residing in the neighbouring areas, in the bordering areas. And this has been a huge burden on Bangladesh. Bangladesh, you know, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and the Rohingya refugees are being very well taken care of. In fact I would say that they are better off than our local population who live outside the camps and that also gives rise to sometimes social tensions. 

Barkha Dutt: But in many ways that's the argument made in India as well. 

Dr Moni: So we have been very good to them, we have been very, very good to the refugees. And the illegal entrants, they have also been here now for a number of years and it is putting a huge burden on Bangladesh. And we have been talking about this since their entry; we have been talking about this repatriation process. This is not like one person migrating, having economic migration, having relatives on the other side, going there or one person coming to this side - it's not like that. This is like mass movement. I'm sure something like that didn't happen in the recent past in Assam. If something had happened, that happened in 1947, during the Partition, but not now. And that also happened in both ways. This one, the Rohingyas, we have been doing our best, but we also have, this is when a refugee situation occurs, it is also the responsibility of the world community to share the burden. That burden sharing hasn't been there. 

Barkha Dutt: There have been suggestions by some groups that if you let them in, the world, the world will step into help. 

Dr Moni: Well in refugee camps, some of them are helping. The UNHCR, some of them are helping. And about the illegal entrants, they are not refugees. So how do you deal with them? They have to be repatriated and for us voluntary repatriation is the only solution. And so we have been bilaterally discussing this issue with Myanmar and we hope that there will be a solution, but even the talks are very slow. But for Bangladesh, it has now reached a point where we cannot take anymore burden. What we have done is, when some of the people came through boats, we have given them fuel, we have given them medicines, we have given them the fuel for their boats so that they don't get stuck on the waters and then returned them. And since they have returned, now not too many people are coming. And this time also there was sectarian violence, not a state prosecution, like in the past. For sectarian violence if something happens, you do not expect another country to, I mean, this time the situation was factually very different from the past. And that is why we believe that our response was also not illogical at all or not irrational at all. And we believe that we have done the right thing and what best we could offer, we have offered. 

Barkha Dutt: Okay...

Dr Moni: And we have been talking to Myanmar people and what the best we could offer we offered. And we have been talking to Myanmar people and they have also been able to bring the violence down. 

Barkha Dutt: One of the other irritants between India and Bangladesh are the border killings. It has been, what the Border Security Force in India will say, or smugglers or criminals or infiltrators will say, your government has been told that even if they are criminals, arrest them, but you have argued that they are being fired upon indiscriminately. Is this an issue that is now resolved?

Dr Moni: Well, not yet. Because you see border killings are still happening, though, definitely in terms of numbers it has gone down, but still killings are happening and this is an issue, which I think, this one issue jeopardises all other achievements, I would say.

Barkha Dutt: So do you mean this casts a longer shadow than most other issues?

Dr Moni: Absolutely, absolutely. And people feel very strongly about it and that is why we have always urged the Indian side, and from the Indian government also, they have repeatedly said that they will try to contain their forces and try to make sure that they exercise utmost restraint. So the trend is good but we want the numbers down to zero.

Barkha Dutt: Something that grabs headlines for all the wrong reasons is somebody who never stays out of news for too long, is Taslima Nasrin. And I ask you about her, because I know you are a lover of good books and she is a writer and she has had an asylum in India previously, which stopped as well because of various controversies at home. How do you view her case? Do you view it as an international case that Bangladesh could handle or should handle differently?

Dr Moni: Well, she is a citizen of Bangladesh and she has been living in exile. Through her writings she sort of became very controversial. And there were, at that time, the extremist forces and the fundamentalists were also very vocal about it. So there was a situation maybe, or she chose to leave the country. So as a citizen am sure that she has all the rights. And I don't; I read a lot of books and I have read one of two of her books; am not very fond of her. I would say as a writer, obviously she has her own views, and she is entitled to that. I'm not a huge fan of her writing, not the style, not the style of writing, very provocative kind of writing.

Barkha Dutt: Okay. On a more personal note before we end, a woman in politics, Bangladesh's first woman Foreign Minister. This is a part of our world that all of us come from, where the paradox that women have never had a problem leading our country, being in the ministry of politics, yet it doesn't always percolate down. So, you know, you have great symbols of power, great symbols of political power, but not necessarily empowerment and freedom for the ordinary woman. How has the ride been for you so far, wearing the female hat? Has the gender ever come in the way of you being able to do your job? Is there resistance from other quarters?

Dr Moni: Well, it comes once in a while. 

Barkha Dutt: It always does, there is no escaping.

Dr Moni: I wouldn't say that it has never come. It has come once in a while, but I think I grew up in an environment where I was always treated as an individual, and when I felt like a woman, I thought, I always thought that was a privilege; that it was wonderful to be a woman. And, there are so many things. The most important thing in life, childbirth, that woman carries that child, so why shouldn't I feel proud for being a woman? I feel proud and I feel comfortable being a woman.

Barkha Dutt: And in politics is it an advantage, a disadvantage or neither? 

Dr Moni: Well I wouldn't say that it's an advantage or a disadvantage. Probably a lot it depends on self. You see in our personal lives also, every household, yes there are still many discriminations, and at the same time mothers are the decision makers in most houses I would say, and we have great women champions, and even if you look at the religion and I keep saying this, in Buddhism, they say that men are the carriers of Knowledge and women are carriers of Wisdom; and in Hinduism you have all the great goddesses. And in Islam the first person to convert was a woman, first martyr in the cause of Islam was a woman, and our prophet was actually surrounded by powerful women and very influential women, and the women played great roles in his life. So I think from that point of view also in our society, Bangladesh is a melting pot of religions, cultures and all that. Here we see that quite a lot; women are, at some stages of lives, are very powerful, they are the decision makers. At another stage, they are very vulnerable; there is still a lot of discrimination that goes on, there is still a lot of violence that goes on. But I think women decision makers, specially the President, Prime Minister, of Bangladesh, has made tremendous difference in her previous tenure, during the National Women's Development policy, doing a lot of things for the woman, empowering woman.

Barkha Dutt: There was a reference to it in her speech in the People's Empowerment Conference.

Dr Moni: Yes, and she believes in it. That is why there are so many of us in the Parliament, in the cabinet, in the party. And as I said, yes, sometimes we also feel, sort of not always, at times also I think it's also great, I would say most of the time it's great being a woman.

Barkha Dutt: Well, most of the time. It's a great pleasure talking to you.

Dr Moni: Thank you. Wonderful talking to you.

Barkha Dutt: Thank you so much.

Full transcript of the interview in NDTV, August 08, 2012