Monthly Coupon

Monday, December 30, 2013

Bangladesh Must Never Forget Those Sacrifices

Photo: Sheikh Hasina has remained constant in her action against the right wing fundamentalists who, aided by the BNP, acting out of electoral compulsions, has encouraged nationwide violence


It was on February 5, 2013 that the young in Dhaka came out to Shahbag Square to protest and demand capital punishment for the Butcher of Mirpur, Abdul Quader Mollah, along with others who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, for their war crimes during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The movement had quickly spread to the rest of the country and the Jamaat Islami reaction was immediate and has remained violent. Nevertheless, Sheikh Hasina has remained constant in her action against the right wing fundamentalists who, aided by the BNP, acting out of electoral compulsions and its own convictions, has encouraged nationwide violence.

Shahbag was about closure. It was a war against fundamentalism and was not about revenge. Many of the protestors were young boys and girls born after 1971 who gave the famous slogan ‘Joy Bangla’ a new relevance and a new meaning. It is in Bangladesh that they wish to remember the discrimination in all the 25 years preceding 1971 and the genocide in the nine months that preceded that December 16. It was too soon after independence to find out what happened during those horrible months as the new nation had to be built from the debris and the devastation that the West Pakistanis had left behind. Yet they needed to remember all that to build their future.

The then Karachi-based journalist, Anthony Mascarhenas, was the first in June 1971 to break the news internationally of the genocide in East Pakistan, leading the Pakistan Government to white wash the events in its white paper of August that year. The young nation needed more than anecdotal references.

The Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order soon after liberation and the 1973 War Crimes Tribunals Act were lost in the assassination of Bangabandhu and some members of his family. It took the Awami League twenty years to regain power in 1996 only to lose it to the right wing BNP supported by the Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that had supported the Pakistan Army and had opposed independence.

Attempts at discovering what happened in 1971 and to record Pakistani atrocities remained haphazard. There was no systematic fact finding and War and Secession — Pakistan, India and the creation of Bangladesh by Richard Sisson and Leo Rose in 1991 was more an account covering the military aspects of the war and did not cover the activites of the Pakistan Army before the war.

Robert Payne’s Massacre has several anecdotal references but his book was published soon after independence as was Mascarenhas’ book The Rape of Bangladesh, so could not give accurate estimates. Susan Brownmiller (Against Our Will) refers to 400000 rapes by the Pakistan Army and its collaborators, of which nearly 80 per cent were Muslim women.
Centuries of Genocide (4th edition in 2013) edited by Samuel Totten and William S Parsons has a chapter — Genocide in Bangladesh by Rounaq Jahan that has detailed graphic descriptions of the killings and depredations. She also says 3 million were killed. Yet Sarmila Bose’s book Dead Reckoning has remained controversial as it sought to find proof for a predetermined finding that the Bengali claim was grossly exaggerated and accepts the Pakistan Army figure of 26,000 Bengalis killed. Bose is dismissive of Bengali claims about the extent of genocide.

It was left to Dr M A Hasan, a medical student in 1971 who had joined the Mukti Bahini resistance movement. He painstakingly researched the events of 1971 through his NGO, The War Crimes Fact Finding Commission established in 1999 produced an accurate report entitled War Crimes, Genocide and the Quest for Justice in 2008. This report should ideally be in research and history libraries given the meticulous details and perhaps not something the average reader would read. Fortunately, Dr Hasan has now published Beyond Denial — The Evidence of a Genocide for the average reader. Hasan’s study says that the figure of 3 million innocent civilians killed is the more likely figure. The book describes in considerable detail some truly blood curdling systematic massacres; only those with strong hearts should read these pages.

Bangladesh needs full closure of this painful aspect of her history and a move away from fundamentalism that threatens it today. Bangladesh has to see the fulfillment of its Shahbag moment. The recent hanging of Mollah, is a process in that closure. But when Pakistan’s National Assembly expressed concern at the hanging of Mollah and Interior Minister Nasir Ali Khan criticised this hanging, this only shows how dangerously delusional Pakistan’s leaders have become. No wonder this prompted Sheikh Hasina to comment that Pakistan had not accepted liberation of Bangladesh.

First published in Mid Day, Mumbai, India, December 30, 2013

Vikram Sood is a Vice President at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing

Saturday, December 28, 2013

How not to do a war crimes tribunal: the case of Bangladesh

The promising start of the tribunals, once thought to bring closure to people, has devolved into power politics.


For many people who had lost their near and dear ones during the bloody birth of the nation, the scars were too deep to let go so easily. It was aggravated by the fact that the 195 Pakistani military officials primarily accused of genocide were never tried. It was further compounded by the fact that the key collaborators of the war crimes were eventually mainstreamed into national politics and even served as ministers during the regime of current opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The issue of justice for 1971 has long been a contentious one in Bangladeshi politics. Many believed that Bangladesh needed a meaningful closure to the trauma of the past in order to move forward.

A war crimes tribunal to bring the collaborators to justice was thought to be one of the key steps in that direction. It was in the election manifesto of the ruling party - a promise that motivated a lot of young people to vote for them.

Hijacked revolution
However, two years into the process, many now believe the tribunal to be vulnerable to outside interventions in an attempt to convert the case into a political weapon for the ruling party. This, together with the resultant violence that ravaged the country, have now left a lot of people confused and wondering what they were fighting for in the first place.

At the same time, the controversies have also given rise to a group of hard core Bengali nationalists who are willing to turn a blind eye to the systematic corruption and manipulation of the election system to secure another term for The Awami League (AL). As they are aware, the tribunal might get dismantled and the accused freed if the opposition BNP and its ally Jamat-e-Islami ascend to power - a possibility they are not willing to accept. 

In such a situation, the lines between politics, judiciary, election and justice are increasingly getting blurred. The whole population now appears to be ideologically divided into two distinct camps - for and against the tribunal.

It all looked distinctly different back in February.

The urban youth gathered in Shahbag square to protest against the verdict awarded to Kader Mollah, one of the key accused. They thought the verdict - life imprisonment, which they considered to be too lenient - indicated that the government may be conducting secret negotiations with Jamat-e-Islami. It appeared, apart from a handful of hard core Jamat-e-Islami supporters, that there was a broad unanimity in Bangladesh about bringing the war criminals to justice.

The movement which clearly was anti-establishment in nature, very soon played into the hands of the political parties.

Though water bottles were hurled at government ministers who tried to gain entrance to the centre-stage in the first few days, the ruling party found a way to infiltrate the movement with the assistance of some faithful party cultural figureheads in no time and started dictating its agenda. The crowd started dispersing.

When the Awami captured Shahbag, BNP opposed it. Mahmudur Rahman, the firebrand editor of the national daily, The Amar Desh [Be], led the way to label the movement as one against Islam, organised by atheists.

Subsequent events led to the emergence of Hefajot-e-Islam, a religious group formed by madrassas scholars in protest against the defamation of the prophet - written by a slain blogger who was an activist in the Shahbag movement. 

Divided opinions
Bangladesh witnessed further bloodshed across the country in which more than 400 lives were lost and it swung from crisis to crisis leading up to this month when the tenure of the Awami government ended and it refused to hand over power to a caretaker government citing a constitutional requirement, bringing another set of violent conflicts with the opposition and its allies.

Last week, Kader Mollah was executed after his appeal was turned down by the country’s Supreme Court.

Jamat-e-Islami claims that there are a number of inconsistencies in the judgement of Kader Mollah and other trials. Few doubt the involvement of Jamat-e-Islam in the genocide that took place in 1971. However, many are now unwilling to side with the government in what they believe to be a systematic targeting of top tier leadership of Jamat-e-Islami in exclusion of some of the Awami leaders that have been accused of being collaborators as well.

Public opinion has also been influenced by the revelations of irregularities through the hacking of a Skype account of one of the judges and the eagerness of the Awami to divide the electorate into pro and anti-liberation forces based on their support of the Awami League. 

To many people, the timing of the execution and alacrity in its proceedings indicate the government’s willingness to use the tribunal for political gains. The exigency was interpreted as the government’s need to have at least one execution before the election.

The Awami league is preparing for an election which the chief opposition party deems too partisan to participate in 151 AL nominees have already been "elected" without a single vote being cast.

Meanwhile, a series of countrywide blockades imposed by the opposition is disrupting the country’s entire economy due to the limited flow of goods. About 150 lives have been lost in last two months in ensuing violence.

Support for Jamat-e-Islami still comes with a stigma in the country, especially in the urban middle class population. But, if you follow the comments section below articles of the leading media - you will find Jamat-e-Islami is making a stunning comeback by accumulating sympathy. The alleged irregularities of the trial and public perception of it seem to have turned the party into a victim, from a party which was always considered a pariah and one with blood in its hands.

Yet a large number of the population will object to this view. For them Jamat-e-Islami and its leaders are known war criminals who need to be punished at any cost. They have a valid argument which must be judged against the particular context of Bangladesh.

Procedural flaws
The country’s judiciary has been politicised since its inception. Jamat-e-Islami and its leadership have had ample chances to hide their criminal tracks, especially as they have been in power through an alliance. Lack of documentation makes it quite difficult to conclusively incriminate anyone after 42 years. Many of the witnesses have now passed away. But, the stories of the crimes have carried on for generations and many were reported in the media, years after the war. Hence, the trial has to depend on circumstantial evidence and sole witnesses or witnesses who were very young at the time the crimes took place.

Under such circumstances, some of the most ardent supporters of the tribunal might find it justifiable to bend the rules. It might appal a law student, but this is a country where most people give whole-hearted support to the extra-judicial killings of top criminals as they know the criminals would otherwise escape justice by securing bail from the court where it is very common for a case to be unresolved for 20 years.

Therefore, we see people who consider the atrocities too severe to be forgiven and want nothing but death penalty for the accused war criminals to redeem the collective national shame of letting them avoid punishment this long.

As mentioned above, a big part of the population seems to be disagreeing with this viewpoint. Not because they consider procedural flaws to be the ultimate sin for a Bangladeshi court, but because they are disgruntled about the government’s attempt to use the war crimes tribunal to cover up heavy corruption and the systematic looting of national wealth. In the meantime, supporters of Jamat-e-Islam maintain that their leaders are being tried only because of their support of Islamist politics.

The country appears to be deeply divided and this division has now transcended politics and descended into society, aided by the media.

The media, which mostly constitutes the culturally educated urbanites, are vociferously taking a side against the alleged war criminals. They are also conveniently ignoring the instances of shooting on the protesters by law enforcement agencies.They are choosing to ignore the multiple dynamics of the debate that is ravaging the country.   

Apart from a small number of indigenous peoples living in hill tracts, Bangladesh is a country of a single race, the Bengalis. The collective mind-set and cultural values have certain homogeneousness which has protected this society from any major conflicts, apart from the ones delivered by feudal party politics. But, that is now set to change.

Many people believed the war crimes tribunal will allow the country to get rid of the ghosts of the past. But it now appears the willingness to use the tribunal as a political tool has created a chasm among the population. The attempt at getting rid of the ghost may haunt the country for many years to come.

First published in AlJazeera, December 25, 2013

Zia Hassan is a political and cultural analyst. He writes in local and international blogs and social media outlets

Pakistan's State of Denial


It was a Pakistani journalist, Anthony Mascarenhas, who gave the world the first detailed account of Bangladesh’s war of independence. In April 1971, soon after the army of Pakistan started suppressing the secessionist movement in what was then still the eastern part of the country, it invited Mr. Mascarenhas to report on the conflict, believing he would buttress the false propaganda of a just war. Mr. Mascarenhas promptly moved his family, and then himself, to Britain knowing that soon he would no longer be able to live in Pakistan.

“For six days as I traveled with the officers of the 9th Division headquarters at Comilla I witnessed at close quarters the extent of the killing,” Mr. Mascarenhas wrote in a lengthy, damning report published under the headline “Genocide” in the June 13, 1971, edition of The Sunday Times.

“I saw Hindus, hunted from village to village and door to door, shot off-hand after a cursory ‘short-arm inspection’ showed they were uncircumcised. I have heard the screams of men bludgeoned to death in the compound of the Circuit House (civil administrative headquarters) in Comilla. I have seen truckloads of other human targets and those who had the humanity to try to help them hauled off ‘for disposal’ under the cover of darkness and curfew.”

Four decades later, Mr. Mascarenhas’s government still insists on denying the past: the mass killing of civilians (perhaps as many as three million), the targeting of Hindus, the systematic rape of thousands. On Dec. 16, Pakistan’s National Assembly adopted a resolution expressing concern over the recent execution of Abdul Quader Mollah, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s leading Islamic party, who was convicted by a Bangladeshi court of committing murder and rape while collaborating with the Pakistani Army during the 1971 war. Calling Mr. Mollah a Pakistani sympathizer — and the independence of Bangladesh “the fall of Dhaka” — a multiparty majority of the assembly complained that Mr. Mollah was sentenced because of his “loyalty to Pakistan” and asked the Bangladeshi government to drop all other cases against the Jamaat leadership.

There is no doubt the Pakistani Army committed war crimes in 1971. Yet in history books and schoolrooms throughout Pakistan, the army’s atrocities are glossed over.

This denial prevails despite an official study by the Pakistani Army. Just after the war, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto set up an independent judicial commission to investigate atrocities committed in East Pakistan in order to understand why the army had failed there. When the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report was published in 1974, it documented how, under the pretense of quashing a rebellion, the Pakistani Army had planned and carried out the execution of intellectuals, soldiers, officials, businessmen and industrialists, and had buried them in mass graves.

The commission recommended that the Pakistani government set up a special court to further investigate misconduct by the army. This never happened, and the report remained classified for nearly three decades. Five Pakistani heads of state have visited Bangladesh since 1971 without extending a formal apology. The closest any of them came to recognizing Pakistan’s wrongs was Pervez Musharraf, who wrote in 2002 in a visitors’ book at a war memorial near Dhaka, “Your brothers and sisters in Pakistan share the pains of the events of 1971. The excesses committed during the unfortunate period are regrettable.”

Bangladesh’s own efforts to deal with its messy birth were unsuccessful — until 2008, when the Awami League was voted into power partly on a mandate to hold a war crimes trial that would bring to justice the people who collaborated with the Pakistani Army in 1971. (By then Bangladeshis had grown weary of successive governments’ turning a blind eye to crimes many of their own families had endured.) The International Crimes Tribunal was created in 2009; 12 men have been charged so far; three of them have been convicted, including Mr. Mollah.

From the outset, the court was dogged with criticism. It has been accused of skirting international procedural standards and of being politically motivated: Most of the accused are members of Jamaat-e-Islami. In December 2012, President Abdullah Gul of Turkey requested “clemency” for the defendants, on the grounds that they were “too old” to stand trial. On the eve of Mr. Mollah’s appeal, Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly warned Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh that Mr. Mollah’s execution would create instability on the eve of the general election set for Jan. 5.

Whatever one thinks of these trials or the death penalty generally, the sentence against Mr. Mollah was handed down by an independent court in a sovereign country on the basis of extensive eyewitness testimony. And Mr. Mollah’s execution on Dec. 12 had widespread public support. Never mind Prime Minister Hasina’s flaws: At least she has had the political courage to take a stand against whitewashing the past, while the opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, has reinforced her ties with Jamaat by remaining silent on the matter.

But then, a few days after Mr. Mollah’s execution — precisely on the anniversary of Pakistani Army’s surrender to independent Bangladesh — the Pakistani National Assembly adopted its denialist resolution. Instead of supporting Bangladesh’s efforts to come to terms with its brutal birth, Pakistan is pouring salt into its wounds. Pakistan, it is high time you apologize.
First published in The New York Times, December 26, 2013

Tahmima Anam is a writer and anthropologist, and the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Noose tightens on Bangladesh opposition

Protesters burn effigy of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan in front of Pakistan embassy in Bangladesh capital
After the execution of a senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader, the religious party faces an uncertain future.


Hours after Bangladesh executed Abdul Quader Molla, a top opposition leader, for his role in the 1971 civil war that culminated into Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan activists from his party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), staged riots. Violence has continued in the country following the December 12 hanging, leading to dozens of deaths.

More than 100 JeI activists have been detained in a nation-wide crackdown.

Molla's execution has lead to heated debates about the role of political Islam in the country and the future for religious opposition parties.

"Bangladesh will be the first country to bury 'political Islam' which wrecked the traditional secular fabric of the society since independence in 1971," explains professor Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, who teaches Public Affairs in the Dhaka University.

'Surge and Decline'
JeI had opposed the break-up of Pakistan and fought alongside Pakistan's military against pro-Independence forces. It was banned from politics upon the formation of Bangladesh.

But a military coup in 1975 lifted the ban on JeI. During the 1980s, the religious party joined a multi-party coalition and later supported the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In October 2001, it emerged as the country's third largest party, securing 17 seats in the 300-member parliament. Both the JeI and BNP led by Begum Khaleda Zia replaced the Awami League (AL), which had been in power since 1996.

In 2008, AL led by Sheikh Hasina came back to power even as JeI's popularity waned when it won a mere 5 seats in national elections. And in 2010 AL began war crimes trials for events surrounding the independence struggle under Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).

Molla became the first person convicted by the tribunal. He was initially sentenced to life in prison in February. Calling a life sentence as too lenient, thousands across Bangladesh demanded he be hanged. And in September, the Supreme Court overturned life in prison and replaced it with a death sentence.

With his hanging, some observers believe JeI's power also has been executed.

While war veterans from 1971 and thousands of pro-independence youths rejoiced after the hanging, the JeI's acting head Moqbul Ahmed warned "people would [want] revenge" on the party's website, which triggered a massive crackdown against JeI activists.

Ahmed has called on the international community to raise its voice against the "repression on the opposition".

"Since coming to power the government (of Awami League) has practiced unbridled corruption, nepotism and even torture upon members of the opposition. They are now making a last-ditch attempt to stay in power indefinitely by amending the constitution and destroying the state apparatus. They have abolished the caretaker system of government and have enacted a new system to hold elections under their own party government," the Jamaat chief said, something which its political partner BNP also backs.

Both the parties have in recent months launched blockades; often resulting in violence and killings, to press for their demands but the ruling AL so far seems unwilling to budge.

JeI says crackdown on its members and the hanging of its leader was "politically motivated".

But others feel the executions were fair, as Jamaat's paramilitary Al Badr had committed "heinous war abuses" for which they need to be punished.

According to M A Hasan, of the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, an independent body investigating the 1971 massacres: "Al Badr had been engaged in forced abduction and execution of Bangla-speaking pro-independence nationalists and secularists to brutally muzzle the voices for freedom."

The war historian's documents claim that "local henchmen" allied with Pakistani soldiers were involved in "killing at least 3 million and sexual abusing 400,000 women during the nine months civil war."

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN rights experts have continued their criticism of the war crimes tribunals and the laws under which they operate.

However, Bangladeshi authorities have always argued that they met national standards and that justice is needed for war crimes committed during the bloody war of independence from Pakistan.

'Partner's silence'
The BNP, Jel's erstwhile political ally, has been conspicuously silent since Molla's execution.

It is currently pre-occupied in talks with the ruling AL over how to break the political deadlock.

"It seems BNP is more desperate for a political solution than stalemate and may have deliberately overlooked JeI's concerns," Ahmed explains.

The BNP has been holding series of blockades of the country's transport system since December in protest of holding what it says is "farcical" election in January.

A court has already declared the registration of the JeI as "illegal" to contest national polls.

" [The] BNP's strategic election partner has become a dead horse and a political burden for the opposition," says Nzmul Ahsan Kalimullah, a professor of public administration at the University of Dhaka. "It is time for BNP to shred JeI, which will bring an end to political Islam which has haunted the nation apparently for 30 years."

'Uncertain future'
JeI may not be a dead horse but even some party insiders believe it is facing a worst crisis in its 40-year-long political history in Bangladesh.

"It would be a Herculean task to survive against the ruling party which has an overwhelming majority in the government," says explains Salauddin Babar, executive editor of the pro-JeI newspaper, Dainik Naya Diganta, and a senior JeI member. "It will be an uphill battle to survive the current political crisis JeI faces."

Babar believes that the crackdown weakend the party's chain of command and Jel could crack under the pressure.

"The political future of the party has been challenged after a sustained crackdown on the leadership. Jamaat's future is uncertain," he says.

First published in Al Jazeera news portal, December 21, 2013

Saleem Samad is an award winning Bangladesh based investigative journalist and an Ashoka Fellow. Presently news correspondent for press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF). He is recipient of Hellman-Hammett Grants award by New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2005.

Passions of Bangladesh by Islamists in Pakistan


Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the PMLN’s interior minister, has passionately proclaimed his “Muslim identity” above his “Pakistani nationality”. Speaking on the floor of the National Assembly last week, he described himself as “first a Musalmaan and then a patriotic Pakistani” in denouncing the execution of Qader Molla, the Sec-Gen of the Bangladesh Jamaat i Islami by the government of Hasina Wajed for war crimes against Bangladesh during the “war of liberation from Pakistan in 1971”. Chaudhry Nisar explained how he had tried desperately to convince his cabinet colleagues to officially convey their Muslim passions to the government of BD but failed to evoke a response, the Pakistani Foreign Office shrugging off the episode as an “internal matter” of BD. He also tried to whip up frenzy in parliament through the good oratory skills of his former PMLN colleagues and current opposition leaders Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and Javed Hashmi for a condemnatory resolution against the execution of Qader Molla but failed, thanks largely to resistance from the PPP and MQM who watered it down significantly.

On the face of it, many Pakistanis might unthinkingly agree with Chaudhry Nisar in staking their Muslim identity over and above their Pakistani one in any given situation. In fact, recent polls show that a significant majority of Pakistan’s youth are inclined to say “I am a Muslim” when asked the simple question “who are you?” rather than “I am a Pakistani”? This contrasts sharply with Muslims elsewhere in the world who are more likely to stress their nationality over their religion, eg, Arabs, Saudis, Malaysians, Chinese, Palestinians, Kuwaitis, Emiratees, Iranians, etc. Indeed, even Muslims in India would answer “Indian” rather than “Muslim”. Why are we Pakistanis different from our fellow Muslims in other nation states? What are the consequences for our state and society of this difference in perceptions and notions of identity?

The issue can be traced back to partition when the leaders of the Pakistan movement, including Mohammad Ali Jinnah, deliberately mixed up propagandistic notions of Islam, the religion and culture, “being in danger” with the fact of “economic and political discrimination” of Muslims in the body politic of India led by the predominantly Hindu-Congress. Unfortunately, however, after the creation of Pakistan, the political leaders of the new nation state continued to clutch at “Islamic ideology” rather than secular democracy for purposes of legitimacy and conjured up “Hindu India” as the perennial external enemy seeking to undo Pakistan. In this dubious quest for a religious nationhood, they trampled over the right of Pakistanis to assert their state identity (Pakistani), followed by their ethic and regional sub-identities. This mass identity falsehood eventually led to the democratic reassertion of Bengali rights and the impetus behind the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, followed by eruptions of similar regional-ethnic sentiments in Balochistan and Pashtunistan in 1973.

The second consequence of trying to forge a singular Muslim identity in Pakistan in opposition to the nation-state identities of other Muslim and non-Muslim countries is the legitimization of large-scale violence by state and non-state actors. Singular religious and belief identities are likely to be more passionately held, defended and extended than plural ones that are more conciliatory and tolerant. This explains the rise of separatist ethnic movements no less than eruptions of Islamic terrorism and sectarianism.

The third consequence of Muslimising our primary identity is eternally pitting our nation-state of Pakistan against the nation-state of India by portraying it in our national consciousness as Hindu-India, despite the fact that Indians identify themselves as Indians and not Hindus or Muslims when dealing with citizens of other nation states who do likewise. This distortion of the legitimizing narrative of a new nation-state has, in turn, led to the creation of a national security state based on the supremacy of the military as the predominant political force in Pakistan.

Under the circumstances, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s Muslims passions are totally misplaced and even dangerous in articulating Pakistan’s interests. Indeed, the fact that he is ideologically on the same page as the two spokesmen of the military, Sheikh Rashid and Javed Hashmi, is cause for serious concern. He is dipping into the lowest common denominator of religious passions at a moment in history when his leader Nawaz Sharif is trying to keep religion out of the politics of conflict-resolution between Pakistan and India; out of the equation between the forces of democracy and the forces of Praetorianism; and out of reckoning between the forces of religious terrorism and the writ of the nation-state.

To be sure, the ruling party of Bangladesh is whipping up nationalist passions for rank opportunist political reasons. But these are internal matters for Bangladesh. On the other hand, it is morally and politically wrong for Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and his ideological ilk to be labour the Muslim passions of 1971 in which Pakistan was the clear transgressor, and create a rift within and outside the country.

First published in The Friday Times, Pakistan, 20 Dec 2013

Najam Sethi is an award-winning Pakistani journalist, editor-in-chief of The Friday Times, a political weekly, and Anchor/Analyst of Geo News’ political program: “Aapas ki Baat”

Butcher Quader is the ‘angel’ of Mirpur


Mr Molla was a Bangladeshi citizen — had he loved Pakistan so much, he would have renounced his citizenship and migrated to the Islamic citadel, after the creation of the so-called Indian-sponsored Bangladesh

The sovereign state of Bangladesh decided to punish a Bangladeshi citizen named Abdul Qauder Molla for 1971 war-related crimes. Mr Molla was hanged according to Bangladeshi laws (right or wrong, which is of course debatable) after the review of their Supreme Court. A foreign office ‘babu’ (bureaucrat) in Islamabad drafted a vague and vain (in essence) statement, advising Bangladesh that, “Though it is not the norms of our state to interfere in the business of other countries, but the world is watching the developments that are shaping in Bangladesh ‘very closely’, as a result of this sentencing.” The ‘babu’ must have missed his morning tea or perhaps overslept, as the statement clearly was not very diplomatic at all. However, as they say, we are the ones in deep slumber, unwilling to learn anything from the past. Each year, around this month we do the usual chest thumping, a bit of sloganeering, point fingers towards edgy neighbours and rarely focus on the remaining four fingers that all point towards us. The grand state of delusion, which once engulfed former President Yahya Khan, still runs through our veins like blood and no matter what facts or evidence are brought forward, we simply will not relent and abandon our state of denial.

The social media went ablaze as soon as the hanging was confirmed by credible news sources around the globe. Mr Molla was remembered as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’ and, of course, our folk quickly transformed him into an angel, making him the poor soul who was victimised by the Bangladeshis for his love for Pakistan. All right, let us assume that our patriots have something that carries any weight for a moment. The Awami League-led government in Bangladesh decided to try war criminals after 42 years as a campaign ploy to win the hearts of the potential voters in the upcoming elections in their country. In a country of millions, Mr Molla was the easiest victim and hence they picked on him to demonstrate their disdain towards their former tormentors. Never mind the people who gathered at Shahbagh and protested there. Of course, they must have been some foreign agents, perhaps fielded by our archrival, inciting and stirring up an unwanted controversy. 

Social media activists high on emotions and low on reasoning were calling it a “judicial murder”. Ah the irony — a citizen of their own country was in fact “judicially murdered” and proved as such by our dark history. Yet he is still dogged, to this day, and made the punching bag for this sorry episode. The great lawyers of our great nation want the government to raise the issue of Mr Molla’s hanging at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Our politicos went a step ahead and passed a resolution in the National Assembly condemning the aforementioned event. Some right-wing mouthpieces also awarded Mr Molla the title of Shaheed-e-Pakistan (martyr of Pakistan). The equally deranged Imran Khan declared Mr Molla innocent. The man is multi-talented and can definitely play a firebrand attorney too. I believe when all the hue and cry was being raised on the floor of the National Assembly of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the people’s representatives perhaps overlooked their own foreign office’s statement. Needless to say, this was direct involvement in a sovereign state’s internal affairs. The proponents of such an ill-intended move were desperately trying to find a relationship between Mr Molla and Pakistan.

Let us put some reason into these arguments, shall we? Mr Molla was a Bangladeshi citizen — had he loved Pakistan so much, he would have renounced his citizenship and migrated to the Islamic citadel, after the creation of the so-called Indian-sponsored Bangladesh. Nor did Mr Molla leave a final message for Imran Khan, the ‘rebellious’ Javed Hashmi or their Jamaati cohorts of Pakistan, citing his patriotic fervour for the Islamic Republic.

Next, where were our patriots when Mr Molla needed them the most? At the beginning of this year, when he was convicted, why did the boiling politicos, the so prudent lawyers and the Jamaati leadership of Pakistan not reach out to the ICJ at that juncture? So, once it is said and done, all and sundry wag their tongues to demonstrate their hollow worth, much like the poster child for their hue and cry, Dr Afia Siddiqui, who is languishing in a prison over here. All these right-wingers beat her piñata to death but I very humbly request all of these, including Mr Khan and his cohorts, to set the record straight in both Brother Molla and Sister Afia’s cases, for the sake of our unblemished history. Gather enough evidence and challenge their convictions; after all it is a matter of our ‘honour’. 

Speaking of a leg to stand on, let me say that Mr Khan and his Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) of the Islamic Republic’s cohorts do not even have that. If you look at the resolution, it is advising the sovereign state of Bangladesh to not reopen wounds that are 42-years-old. I humbly ask, why not? Does the act of rape or murder get downgraded or less heinous with the passage of time? Let the criminals be punished on both sides. You bring your evidence against the Mukti Bahini and let them present the evidence against al Shams, al Badar and the soldiers involved. If that is unacceptable, then please have the courage to face those people and seek forgiveness and apologies. Yes, it cuts both ways but it is rather silly of me to hope for any such possibility. Please do not get me started on the enlightened generation of 42 years or younger, or the ones who are much older, with their blinders on. Some are regretfully so ignorant about the real history of the land that they claim to love so much and some deliberately obfuscate to avoid any blame at any cost. The sheer arrogance in the demeanour of our folk is downright revolting and repulsive. Looking at these people vent on the idiot box, social media and on the floor of the National Assembly, one can easily sum everything up in this sentence: “Zinda hai Yahya, Zinda hai” (Yahya is alive, he is alive).

First published in the Daily Times, Pakistan on December 21, 2013

D Asghar is a Pakistani-American mortgage banker. He blogs at and can be reached at He tweets at dasghar

Friday, December 20, 2013

Bangladesh hanging of Abdul Kader Mullah risks derailing elections


Bangladesh has entered uncharted territory with the hanging of a top Islamist leader for crimes against humanity committed during the country's independence war in 1971.

The execution of Abdul Kader Mullah came despite dire warnings of civil strife, and in defiance of international calls to stay the execution.

Mullah, a senior leader of Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, was convicted on five counts of murder and genocide by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a domestic court set up three years ago.

The hanging marks a watershed in the country's short but often bloody history. This is the first time a senior politician has been tried in a civil court and hanged for offences committed in 1971.

The ICT has so far convicted 10 people, eight of whom have been given the death sentence.

'Set the country ablaze'
The government has clearly taken a calculated risk in carrying out the sentence at a time when the country is already in the grip of nearly a month-long opposition strike.

A few weeks earlier, Jamaat leaders said they would ''set the country ablaze'' if Mullah was executed.

During the past few days, thousands of mobile phone users have received messages from an unidentified number, warning it would lead to civil war.

The government of Sheikh Hasina had also come under pressure not to carry out the death sentence from the UK, US, the EU and the UN's human rights body. They worry that the hanging could derail delicate negotiations over upcoming general elections scheduled for 5 January.

The government's determination to see through Mullah's trial to the bitter end has also generated great debate in Bangladesh.

Jamaat-e-Islami is aligned to the country's largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Jamaat has claimed its leaders were being targeted for trial as part of the governing Awami League's efforts to destroy the opposition.

Muted reaction
Jamaat supporters unleashed widespread violence in February when their charismatic leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was sentenced to death. Nearly 100 people died in nearly a week of clashes.

However, initial reaction to Mullah's execution has been fairly muted. There have been reports of scattered violence and small-scale protests in some parts of the country, but this was part of a wave of agitation that was already in progress.

For nearly a month, the entire country has been under a rail and road blockade by the BNP and its allies. It has cut off routes between Dhaka and much of the country, including the vital port city of Chittagong.

The BNP has rejected the 5 January date set for general elections, and called for action to bring down Ms Hasina's interim government.

The BNP and its allies want a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls, arguing that Ms Hasina cannot be trusted to deliver free and fair elections.

Opinion polls, including one commissioned by the Awami League, show overwhelming public support for elections under a neutral government. But at the same time, there is great deal of public disquiet over the opposition's agitation programme, which has left at least 50 people dead since 26 November.

Most of the dead are ordinary citizens travelling on buses, trains or other public transport, attacked by suspected opposition activists with petrol bombs.

The deepening crisis has generated a speculation about the possibility of a state of emergency being declared.

During a similar crisis in 2007, the military stepped in and installed a caretaker government to carry out political reforms. They failed in that task, but managed to steer the country back to constitutional rule through largely free and fair elections.

The Awami League came to power in 2009 through a landslide victory.

There are fears that, if Mullah's hanging does trigger violent protests on top of the blockades and strikes, then the government would find reason to call in the army. This would end hopes of elections for some time.

Calls for compromise
However, it is possible the government has calculated differently. They are aware of the damage a well-organised and well-funded Jamaat can do. The government is also confident it can tackle the violence with security measures.

And it is possible the BNP may even rein in its smaller coalition partner, and warn Jamaat not to rock the boat. The BNP senses it can win the next elections, if a level playing field is ensured.

The government accuses the BNP of carrying out its agitation as an effort to foil the war crimes trials. The BNP denies this and does not comment on the trials.

The US and countries in the European Union have called for a compromise so that an "inclusive election" can take place, and senior leaders from the two parties have agreed to talk.

Soon, they will have to address the critical question of an interim government that both could live with.

The government appears adamant to go ahead with elections on the scheduled date, but the negotiations suggest they may consider rescheduling the polls.

But the entire negotiating process, fragile as it is, could go completely off the rails if the protests over Mullah's hanging reach the intensity of February's unrest.

First appeared in BBC news portal, 13 December 2013

Sabir Mustafa is Editor, BBC Bengali service, London

Thursday, December 19, 2013

BANGLADESH Battle of the Begums


Paving the way for the constitution of an "all-party" Interim Government to oversee the next Parliamentary Elections, all 52 ministers in the Awami League (AL)-led Begum Sheikh Hasina Wajed Government submitted their resignations on November 11, 2013. 

Subsequently, on November 21, 2013, a 29-member Interim Government was formed under Prime Minister Hasina. 28 other Ministers (including 21 Cabinet Ministers and seven State Ministers) were also inducted. All the 28 ministers are members of the Grand Alliance which was formed under AL leadership in December 2008, after the last Parliamentary Elections. While 20 Ministers have been re-inducted, eight new faces, including Anisul Islam Mahmud, Rahul Amin Hawlader, Rawshan Ershad, Mujibul Hague Chunnu, Salma Islam of the Jatiya Party (JP); Amir Hossain Amu and Tofail Ahmed of the AL; and Rashed Khan Menon of the Workers Party (WP).

Hasina later gave an assurance that the Ministers of the Interim Government would not make any policy decisions, and would only engage in 'routine work' during the election period, adding, "I want to assure you [people and the opposition] that the elections will be held in a free and fair manner. I urge the opposition leader to join the elections and the people will decide who assumes power." Prime Minister Hasina also stated that President Abdul Hamid had advised her to lead the Interim Government.

This move, however, has been vehemently opposed by the Begum Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the 18-party opposition alliance she heads, which includes the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and other Islamist radicals. The alliance has been demanding a non-party Caretaker Government (CG) on the pattern of arrangements under which earlier elections were held. In June 2011, Parliament had abolished the non-party CG system, declaring the 15-year-old constitutional provision illegal.

While the BNP-led alliance has opposed the formation of the Interim Government and is planning its strategy of response, the Election Commission (EC), on November 25, 2013, announced that the 10th General Election would be held on January 5, 2014. Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed made the announcement in an address to the nation on state radio and television and appealed to all political parties to contest the election, assuring them of taking all necessary measures, including deployment of the armed forces, to ensure a free and fair election. According to the schedule, the deadline for submission of nomination papers is December 2, 2013.

Since the AL led-Government had completed its tenure on October 24, 2013, Article 123 of the Constitution of Bangladesh required general elections to be held within 90 days, that is, before January 24, 2014.

On November 25, 2013, the Opposition announced a 48-hour countrywide blockade from November 26, 2013. In a press briefing arranged minutes after the announcement of the Election schedule, BNP acting Secretary General, Mirza Fakhrul Islam, called on the EC to postpone the polls schedule until a consensus on the arrangements for a non-party CG was reached among the political parties. BNP spokesman Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir declared, "We reject the election schedule."

Stunned by the announcement and realizing that their attempts to obstruct the announcement of the polls had failed, the Opposition alliance intensified its 'street protests' unleashing wave of disruptive demonstrations and violence in the hope that this would force the Government to rethink its position. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), as many as 25 people, including 20 civilians, four JeI and its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) cadres and one trooper of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) have been killed in street violence since the announcement of the poll schedule (all data till December 1, 2013).

The present disturbances, however, are only an intensification of near-continuous disruptions since January 21, 2013, when the first verdict in the trials for the War Crimes of 1971 was announced. Since then, the country has recorded at least 267 fatalities, including 157 civilians, 96 JeI-ICS cadres and 14 Security Force (SF) personnel, in violence unleashed by the Islamist formations backed by the BNP-JeI combine.

Meanwhile, on November 26, 2013, the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), at a Press Conference at its central office in Dhaka, and the Democratic Left Alliance (DLA), a combine of eight left-leaning political parties, at another press conference at the Nirmal Sen Auditorium in Dhaka city, rejected the announced election schedule. The CPB President Mujahidul Islam Selim declared, "CPB is rejecting the election schedule and will not take part in any one-sided election." Saiful Huq, the DLA coordinator, also rejected the election schedule on the grounds that the process would encourage a 'unilateral election'. Similarly, at a Press Vonference in Dhaka city's Mukti Bhaban on November 28, 2013, Socialist Party of Bangladesh (SPB) General Secretary Khalequzzaman asserted, "Since we believe that a one-sided election under this EC will escalate the present crises rather than resolve it, the CPB-SPB will not take part in the election."

On November 28, 2013, amid fresh political violence and uncertainty about the upcoming General Election, the EC conceded that the January 5 polls could be postponed if consensus is forged by the country's feuding political parties. CEC Kazi Rakibuddin Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed, when asked if the panel could revise the poll schedule, observed, "Everything is possible if they (political parties) reach a settlement in the people's interest."

Any consensus between Bangladesh's polarized political parties is, however, highly unlikely. Shahriar Kabir, a war crimes researcher, thus noted, "The body language of Khaleda made it clear that she is not interested in a resolution and the reason is she is dictated to by Jamaat-e-Islami, which wants to push the country towards a civil war." On the other hand, the Sheikh Hasina-led Government is determined to hold elections on time. While giving an introductory speech at the meeting of the Awami League Parliamentary Board (ALPB) at her Dhanmondi office in Dhaka city on November 28, 2013, Sheikh Hasina urged the people to be prepared to vote, saying that the next parliamentary elections would be held at the "right time" and the people would elect their representatives according to their wishes. Referring to Khaleda Zia, she declared that the Opposition leader was "killing innocent people in the streets" and pushing the country into complete anarchy, even while she kept herself aloof from the street-agitation and lived a "lavish life".

Bangladesh had witnessed a remarkably violence-free poll on December 29, 2008, when the AL secured a landslide victory, with 230 of a total of 300 seats in the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament). The AL subsequently formed the Grand Alliance along with the JP, which accounted for 27 seats in the Jatiya Sangsad, and with 'others' who accounted for five seats. The BNP, which had won 193 seats in the 2001 Elections, collapsed to a strength of just 29 seats, while its principal ally, JeI, was reduced from a strength of 17 seats to two.

With the AL Government hitting the Islamist formations decisively during its tenure, the Islamists and their BNP backers are determined to make one last attempt to derail the polls. Inevitably, in what is being viewed as a virtual battle for survival on both sides of the political spectrum, Bangladesh is heading towards a violent election. The BNP-JeI combine has already made its intention clear, taking the fight into the streets, and rejecting the very possibility of any political discourse for consensus formation. Unsurprisingly, the Sheikh Hasina Government has also hunkered down, to take all necessary measures to enforce a peaceful polling process.

First published in the South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 12, No. 22, December 2, 2013

S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management