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Monday, April 29, 2013

Sadly, Bangladesh Simply Cannot Afford Rich World Safety And Working Standards

People rescue garment workers trapped at a building outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Thursday, April 25.

The horrible disaster in Bangladesh, where hundreds lost their lives as a shoddy building collapsed onto the various workforces, forces us to face an unpleasant truth. Bangladesh simply isn’t rich enough to be able to have the same safety and working standards as those we enjoy in the rich countries.

There are many who disagree with this of course. Reuters has a report on some of them:
Kalpona Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, is traveling with Abedin on a 12-state tour in the United States. They are demanding fair compensation from Wal-Mart and a legally binding agreement from manufacturers to ensure fire and building safety and worker rights. “This is a pattern of gross negligence on the part of multinational corporations,” Akter said. “They know what is happening, but they are not stopping it.”
The proposed answer seems to be that the buyers of the goods from these factories must make sure that said factories are safe, that everyone is properly paid, that they’re enforcing high standards and so on.

To which there are two responses I’d make. The first is that this is all a bit colonial really, isn’t it? Bangladesh does have a government, they do have laws about who can work where, for how long, how much they should be paid and so on. They also have building codes, building inspectors and all the rest. It really is a colonial attitude to insist that the locals cannot work these things out for themselves and that they must have some set of foreign rules imposed upon them. In a certain light we can even say that it appears racist to some extent. Poor brown people just aren’t good enough at this governance stuff so we enlightened ones will have to do it for them.

However, whatever your opinion of that idea, there’s another much stronger argument. Bangladesh just isn’t rich enough to support the sort of worker safety laws that we have ourselves. As Kindred Winecoff points out here:

But neither is this the best time to completely denounce neoliberalism or engage in the sort of extreme wishful thinking through which it is suggested that Bangladesh could (or even should) have levels of labor protection equivalent to the U.S. That is quite literally impossible: Bangladesh’s GDP per capita is about $2,000 per year. Taken together, U.S.-level unemployment protections, retirement accounts, safety regulations, and other programs which benefit labor are more costly than that. So it’s impossible.
Even if the entire economy were devoted to nothing but providing equal labour provisions, the US standards to Bangladeshi workers, there still wouldn’t be enough money to actually bring Bangladeshi standards up to US ones. And that’s even if the entire economy were devoted to it: no one gets any income or food or anything else while we do so. So clearly it’s impossible for there to be equal standards currently.

The sad truth of it all is that such standards will improve in Bangladesh for exactly the same reasons they did in the UK and US a century and more ago. For exactly the same reason they are improving in China right now. As people become richer they take some of that new wealth not in pure cash. But in all those other things like shorter working hours (and thus more leisure), safer workplaces, unemployment protections and the rest. These are the products of wealth.

Which means that all of us who would like to see those conditions improve, and yes of course I include myself in that number, should be cheering on the export led growth of that Bangladeshi economy. For it is indeed that which will lead to those better working conditions that all desire.

Which leads us to the question of how to aid that economy in growing: the most obvious would be to deliberately go and buy those textile products made in that economy. The more that sector sells the richer the country and the workers will be. The richer the country and the workers the better working conditions will become. For as my boss at the Adam Smith Institute, Madsen Pirie, repeatedly points out, the best way of alleviating poverty is to buy things made by poor people in poor countries.

First appeared on, 28 April 2013

Tim Worstall, a Forbes contributor and writes on business and technology. Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

Bangladesh factory disaster: How culpable are Western companies?

Photo: Paul Hackett/Reuters: A Primark clothing shop in central London on April 25, 2013. U.K. clothing retailer Primark, which has 257 stores across Europe and is a unit of Associated British Foods, confirmed that one of its suppliers occupied the second floor of a building that collapsed in Bangladesh killing at least 370 workers


The horrible collapse of a garment factory building in Bangladesh has renewed questions over whether Western companies should be held accountable for lax safety standards in the factories where their products are made. Below, we get you up to speed on the debate.

First off, what's the latest?
The news keeps getting worse. Two days after the collapse, the death toll is now above 300; some workers remain trapped beneath the wreckage, with rescuers working frantically to save them - sometimes cutting off limbs to get people free. While officials say that 2,200 people have been rescued, the Associated Press has reports the "smell of decaying bodies" amid the wails of workers' relatives at the scene, and the death toll is expected to rise. More than 3,000 people worked at the site. 

Could the tragedy have been avoided?
Absolutely. Police ordered the building evacuated the day before the collapse, after workers reported cracks in the structure. But authorities said the building owner assured factory owner required the workers to come to work despite the order.

Al Jazeera reports that thousands of protesting workers have clashed with police since the collapse. Police firing tear gas and rubber bullets to keep protesters at bay. One deputy police chief said workers are demanding the arrest and execution of the owner of the building - who has reportedly gone into hiding - and those who owned the factories it contained. Some protesters have set fire to factories and smashed vehicles. 

Has anything like this happened before in Bangladesh?
Based on calculations by the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy group, more than 900 people have died in factory fires in Bangladesh since 2005. In November, more than 100 people were killed in a fire at a factory that was producing clothes for Wal-Mart, Disney and other Western companies. Workers said the exit doors to the factory, which had lost its fire safety certification months earlier, were locked and bolted, prompting some to leap to their deaths from the burning building. In January, seven workers died at another factory fire in the country, amid reports that the emergency exit was locked from the outside. It was just one of dozens of fires since the 2005 tragedy.

Why Bangladesh?
Because it's a cheap place to make clothes. The country's minimum wage is roughly $38 per month - as the BBC reported last year, China has turned to Bangladesh for manufacturing as its labor costs have risen. 

Garment manufacturing is a crucial component to the country's economy: More than 4,000 garment factories generate 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports, worth about $20 billion per year. The nation is among the biggest exporter of garments in the world, with most going to the United States and Europe.

Government officials have pledged to improve worker safety, but they are also skittish about taking steps that would increase production costs and potentially result in the industry moving somewhere even cheaper. According to Human Rights Watch, there are just 18 inspectors monitoring thousands of factories in the Shaka district, the center of the industry. The group also said that factory owners - a powerful force in Bagladesh, with ties to government officials - are usually given advanced notice before an inspection. 

Those factory owners, meanwhile, face pressure not to slow or cease operations when there are safety issues because they face pressure to fill orders from Western retailers by strict deadlines. That pressure has been exacerbated since the start of February by ongoing strikes, protests and violence which, the Financial Times reports, has effectively shut down transportation routes. 

"Working conditions in Bangladesh are poor, as many plants operate on an illegal basis without having a license and clearance from the fire department," the European Union said in calling for improved working conditions in February. "Western retailers already criticized the conditions of the Bangladeshi garment plants for not complying with safety rules, but the major Western brands still place orders." 

Was there any progress after earlier tragedies?
Not much, at least as far as workers' advocates are concerned. After the January fire, the country ordered that all its factories be inspected and insisted that the owners stop locking exit doors. But the tragedies have not prompted major reforms by the Bangladeshi government.

Frustrated by a lack of action by the government, worker advocates have pressured the companies importing the garments to take steps to make workers safer. One proposal, called The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, would create a legally binding and rigorous independent inspection and oversight system. It would also allow workers to refuse to work in dangerous conditions. (Efforts to unionize workers in Bangladesh have largely been met with hostility or worse; last year labor rights activist Aminul Islam was tortured and murdered.) Inspections would be funded by as much as $500,000 per year from each company.

But only two companies have signed onto the agreement, short of the four necessary for it to take effect. Wal-Mart, Gap, H&M, JCP, Abercrombie and Kohl's are among the companies that have refused to sign on, instead taking their own steps to address worker safety. (The companies that have signed on are Tchibo, a German retailer, and PVH Corp., which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.)

Gap announced in March that it would spend up to $22 million to improve safety at its factories in Bangladesh, and it has hired its own indipendent fire inspectors in the country. Bill Chandler, Head of Public Affairs for Gap Inc., told it "did not have a business relationship with any of [the] factories in the building that collapsed this week."

"Nonetheless, Gap Inc. takes our commitment to improving working conditions in Bangladesh seriously," he said, adding: "To see tragedies like this become a thing of the past, it will take a collective effort of all retailers, all stakeholders, the U.S. government and the Bangladeshi government to significantly improve the working conditions in this country."

Wal-Mart said in January that it would cease working with contractors that use unsafe practices, and recently vowed to spend $1.8 million to train factory managers in Bangladesh about fire safety. "We are saddened by this tragic event," the company said in a statement to "...We remain committed to promoting stronger safety measures in factories and that work continues."

Advocates say private audits and other efforts by these companies has done little to improve the situation. "Global companies and consumers profit from cheap labor in Bangladesh, but do little to demand the most basic and humane conditions for those who toil on their behalf," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It is time for companies to say that they will take no clothes from companies that do not meet minimum standards." 

One complicating factor in oversight is the fact that owners often use subcontractors to produce garments. Wal-Mart said that while its "investigation has confirmed Walmart had no authorized production in this facility," it will act if it learns there was production through subcontracting, saying it has a "zero-tolerence policy" for unauthorized subcontracting. The New York Times reported that activists searching the rubble have found tags and documents suggesting that production for Mango and Benetton, among other companies, though those brands are distancing themselves from the disaster. (The maker of Joe Fresh and Irish retailer Primark have admitted to using the facility.)

Advocates hope that the latest tragedy will spur companies to increase their efforts to keep workers safe. There is speculation that the latest tragedy and the ongoing strikes and violence will spur companies to move manufacturing away from Bangladesh. But that could simply shift the fundamental problem elsewhere in what critics call a "race to the bottom" by global brands. 

"How many more workers have to die," said Stott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium, "before these corporations are willing to take the steps necessary to put an end to this parade of horror?" 

First published in CBSNEWS, USA, April 26, 2013

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cheap clothes have helped fuel social revolution in Bangladesh

Photo Saleem Samad: Women work at a garment factory in Bangladesh, earning about $37.50 per month.


The news that Joe Fresh sourced clothes from a factory in a building that collapsed outside Dhaka this week – killing at least 300 workers and injuring as many as 1,000 more – brought the price of cheap fashion into sharp focus for Canadians.

The immediate reaction of many was to vow to boycott the store, an understandable response.

But I’m not sure it’s the best one.

Yes, Bangladesh’s garment industry is ridden with appalling labour practices. The fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory in November that left charred piles of young women’s bodies heaped at the fire exits – which were locked – reminded us of that. I’ve visited factories that were so dimly lit the workers stitched Gap-bound shorts hunched over, squinting at the seams. I’ve seen factories where the windows were sealed and the industrial fumes were strangulating. The workers, mostly women, sewing clothes for H&M and Nautica and all the other stores in the West make a few dollars a day, working 12-hour days. A despairing friend who says she struggles to pay the price of Canadian-made clothes, or shop only at the Maritime second-hand chain Frenchy’s, asked me this week if she had to “go naked” in order not to feel guilty.

But our cheap clothes have helped fuel a social and economic revolution in Bangladesh, and Bangladeshis do not want that to end.

Pressure from buyers works. Clients have pushed factories in Dhaka – and in Kampala and Maseru and other places where I’ve reported on the garment industry – to improve labour and safety standards. Not great – they wouldn’t meet Canadian standards. But they’re safer, and factory owners are constantly forced to reexamine.

Companies such as Nike and the Gap, high-profile bands that have been targets of movements like the Clean Clothes Campaign, have been forced to take an active interest in how their clothes are produced, and the factories that make them are correspondingly better than the ones that sew for brands that do not audit.

Two European brands that sourced from the building that collapsed this week were subject to close monitoring. The auditors had approved the working conditions – but it was not part of their brief to check the building. And the structure, we now know, was built without permits or inspections and on unstable ground. So this needs to be factored into expanded audit parameters.

The Bangladeshi state is weak – so is any state that has to rely such poorly paid jobs to build its economy – and the building owner is wealthy and politically connected. Of course, he didn’t have to have the factories inspected. The state will not enforce safety, but you as a consumer can demand it.

Is that better than boycotting the “Made in Bangladesh” label? In Dhaka not long ago, I spent the day in a slum called Korail, where I met many young women who work in the factories. Mini Akhtan makes $65 a month working 72 hours a week, sewing shorts and pyjamas bound for malls in Canada and the United States. She hates the fact that her mother is raising her five-year-old son, whom she sees only on Friday afternoons.

But Ms. Akhtan and her friends gave off a palpable sense that their life is different than it was five years ago – and a certainty that it will be quite different five years from now than it is today. Will they be rich? No. But maybe their kids will be at the private school. They will have saved enough from working at the garment factory to move back to the village and start a small shop. Or to buy a plane ticket to Bahrain to spend a few hard years doing construction work – and come back with savings to really shake things up. Ms. Akhtan is the first person in her family ever to have a formal job; her son, she said with total confidence, will be an engineer.

I asked her to show me the room she shares with her husband – it was small and wickedly hot. But it had electricity to power their one bulb and their fan. They share a piped water stand with six other families, and a latrine and a shower stand too.

And that’s another thing about the garment factories. They account for 75 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports. And Bangladesh is making massive inroads against poverty. It started from the nadir, so it still has low literacy, poor health indicators, high corruption. But maternal mortality has been cut in half in a decade. Ninety-five per cent of kids get their vaccinations.

On every development indicator, Bangladesh is trouncing India – even though India’s economy is growing twice as fast – and a big part of the reason is that women are driving Bangladesh’s growth. The garment factories have a mostly female work force (out of the sexist conviction that they are more biddable and better with fine handiwork like sewing.) Women with jobs and income get a bigger voice in their family decisions; their children go to school, get vaccinated. In India’s boom, almost no women have joined the work force – and you do not see as much social progress as you do across the border.

Bangladesh’s garment zone can seem like a hellhole, and no one who shops at Joe Fresh would want Mini Akhtan’s job for five minutes. But you can call Joe Fresh today and demand that they audit their producers for safety and for working conditions. You can demand to know what their producers’ relations are with Bangladesh’s struggling labour unions. You can tell Joe Fresh that if they are going after your business, they need to have a direct relationship with a supplier – not outsource to a third party so they get plausible deniability. Demand to see those safety audits, every quarter, posted on their website, right beside the sale on $6 shorts.

And get involved with Clean Clothes or a similar campaign working to shed light on that consumer chain. You don’t have to go naked. You can do more for Mini Akhtan and her family by buying “Made in Bangladesh,” and finding out how much the worker who made your shorts was paid.

First published in The Globe and Mail, Canada, April 27 2013

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bangladesh Islamist: Bad moon rising

The Shahbag protests in Dhaka, which were held recently to condemn Bengali Islamists' collaboration with the Pakistani Army in 1971, have found both allies and critics in India's West Bengal region. Ironically, the Indian state is exploiting the anti-Shahbag narrative - led by Islamist forces within India - to earn brownie points with what it sees as a valuable minority. But at what cost?


1971 is still fresh in the mind of many Bengalis from the West, when a massive relief and solidarity effort was undertaken on our side of the border to help a mass of humanity trying to escape what has been described variously as "civil war" and "genocide". The leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami in East Bengal and its student wing organized murder and rape squads, at times in collaboration with the Pakistani Armed Forces. Their specific crimes included mass-murder, rape as a weapon of war, arson and forced conversions. They escaped prosecution because Bangladeshi generals used them to cast an Islamic veneer of legitimacy over their illegal capture of power. In this way the JI was gradually rehabilitated. 

But then the present Awami League-led government came to power, and its manifesto promised the trial of war criminals. Thus started the proceedings against the collaborator mullahs in the War Crimes Tribunal. Last month's Shahbag protests were held to demand maximum punishment for the guilty. 

In West Bengal, which is in India, a few meetings and assemblies have happened around the issue of Shahbag. However, to the shock and dismay of many, the largest of these assemblies was a massive rally held in central Kolkata's Shahid Minar on 30th March, explicitly against the Shahbag protests and in support of the war criminals convicted by the tribunal. Various Muslim groups, including the All Bengal Minority Council, All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, Madrassa Students Union, Milli Ittehad Council and Sunnat-ul-Jamaat Committee, convened the meeting. People had also arrived in buses and trucks from distant districts of West Bengal like Murshidabad and Nadia, in additional to those from the adjoining districts of North and South 24 Parganas, Haora and Hooghly. Students of madrassas and the newly minted Aliah Madrassa University were conspicuous at the gathering.

They rallied because "Islam is in danger" in Bangladesh. Never mind that post-1947, that part of the world through all its forms (East Bengal, East Pakistan, People's Republic of Bangladesh) has seen a continuous drop in the population percentage of religious minorities, in every census since 1951.This rallying cry is not new. It was heard in 1952 when the motherland language movement was in full swing; in 1954 when the United Front led by Fazlul Haq and Maulana Bhashani challenged the Muslim League; in 1969 when the Awami League made its 6 demands; and in 1971 when Bengalees fought for independence. Now this demand is being made in the context of Shahbag in 2013. The pattern shows that 'Islam in danger' comes up during every secular movement for rights and justice. One of the main accused in the war-crimes trial, Golam Azam (also the leader of the Jamaat in East Pakistan in 1971), had used this old trick in the hat when he stated in 1971: "The supporters of the so-called Bangladesh Movement are the enemies of Islam, Pakistan, and Muslims." Replace 'Bangladesh' with 'Shahbag' and 'Pakistan' with 'Bangladesh', and you have the latest slogan.

Describing the struggle in Bangladesh as one between "Islam and Shaitan" (Satan), the Indian Muslim protestors announced at the meeting that they would cleanse West Bengal of those who were trying to support the present Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the war-crime trial effort. It was also threatened that those political forces that support Shahbag would be "beaten with broomsticks" if they came to ask for votes from Muslims. For effect they added that, just like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, Sheikh Hasina too will be kept out of Kolkata. They also endorsed the anti-Shahbag "movement" in Bangladesh. This last assertion is especially worrisome as the so-called movement has let loose its fury on the religious minorities of Bangladesh. It has resulted in a wave of violent attacks on Hindus, Buddhists and secular individuals, with wanton burning and destruction of Hindu and Buddhist homes, businesses and places of worship. Amnesty International communique mentioned attacks on over 40 Hindu temples as of 6th March. The number is over 100 now and still rising. 

Given the recent trends of politics in West Bengal, this large gathering and its pronouncements are not shocking. The writing has been on the wall for a while. A collapse in the Muslim vote of the Left Front is an important factor in its recent demise after more than three decades of uninterrupted rule. Various Muslim divines like Twaha Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif have explicitly pointed out that decline as a point of threat to the present government. The Trinamool Congress wants to ensure a continued slice of this vote. The present government has tried to hand out sops to build a class of Muslim "community leaders" who eat out of its hand by giving monthly stipends to imams and muezzins. Very recently it was decided that such a cash scheme might be worked out for Muslim widows too. Given that it is beyond the ability of the debt-ridden, visionless government to solve the problems that are common to the poor, it has cynically chosen to woo a section of the marginalized on the basis of religion using handouts. These are excellent as speech-making points that masquerade as empathy and social justice. But it is dangerous politics to say the least. It sets into motion currents and gives fillip to forces whose trajectories are beyond the control of the present political groups. The Left Front's political fortune has not improved after its humiliating defeat. It has cynically chosen not to oppose this communal turn to West Bengal's politics, for it too believes that silently waiting for the incumbent to falter is a better roadmap to power. 

The damage such tactics are doing to the state's political culture is immense and may well be irreparable. The incumbent's connivance and the opposition's silence are largely due to decades of erosion in the culture of democratic political contestation through grassroots organizing. Both the incumbent and the opposition parties deal with West Bengal's sizeable minority population primarily via intermediaries, often doing away with any pretense of political ideology while indulging in that transaction.

For their part, organizations owing allegiance to a particular brand of political Islam have exploited this disconnect fully. An emerging bloc of Islamist divines and ex-student leaders have amassed students at short notice and launched protests to influence government policy. Such blackmailing is hardly aimed at uplifting the living standards of West Bengal's Muslims. Rather, it is a show of brute force that began with the successful driving-out of writer Taslima Nasreen during the Left Front regime. Its most recent example was the governmental pressure that managed to keep Salman Rushdie out of a proposed literary event in Kolkata, after he had successfully done such events in Bangalore, New Delhi and Mumbai. This slow pushing of the envelope fits into a sequence of events that are increasingly stifling the freedom of expression in India. At the same time, its double standards are explicit. On March 21st, a medium-sized group consisting of small magazine publishers, human rights workers, theatre artists, women's organizations and peace activists had announced that they would march in solidarity with the Shahbag protests and express their support to the Bangladesh government's war crimes trial initiative by marching to the Deputy High Commission of Bangladesh. Even after it had obtained prior intimation, the rally was not allowed to move by the police due to "orders" and some of the marchers were detained. The same police provided security cover to pro-Jamaat-e-Islami organizations as they conducted their rally a month earlier, and again later when they submitted a memorandum to the same Deputy High Commission demanding acquittal of convicted war criminals. Last year the state issued a circular to public libraries to stock a sectarian daily even before its first issue had been published! 

The role of the state is explicit in these actions - it thinks it can play this game of brinksmanship with finesse. The flight of cultural capital from India is but a natural corollary of such unholy alliances, with the political class playing tactical spectators and enablers. 

The recent bye-election to Jangipur, a Muslim majority constituency, carried certain signals. Prompted by the elevation of Mr. Mukherjee to India's Presidency, this election saw the combined vote of the two main parties fall from 95% in 2009 to 78% in 2012. The major beneficiaries were the Welfare Party of India, a thinly veiled front organization of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and the Social Democratic Party of India, an even more radical group of a similar ilk. Such groups are armed with a program of "tactical pluralism" (which is, it has to be said, akin to the tactical defence of Taslima Nasreen's freedom of speech by majoritarian communal political forces in the Indian Union). The rallying against Shahbag has blown the cover of faux pluralism. 

Communal tension in India has grown in recent years. There has, for instance, been serious disturbance by West Bengal standards in Deganga and Noliakhali. The majoritarian forces smell a subterranean polarization of the polity. Mouthing banalities about Bengal's "intrinsically" plural culture is useless: culture is a living entity, something that is always in flux, created and recreated every moment. At present it is being recreated by the victimization discourse of fringe groups like Hindu Samhati. And it is being recreated in religious congregations in parts of West Bengal where unalloyed poison produced by divines like Tarek Monawar Hossain from Bangladesh is played on loudspeakers. Thanks to technology, such vitriol produced in a milieu of free-style majoritarian muscle-flexing in Bangladesh easily finds its way to a place where the demographic realities are different. Hence the popularity and consequent defence of one of the convicted war criminals, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who in his post-71 avatar had become something of a superstar in the Bengali waz-mahfil (Islamic religious discourse congregation) circuit. What are the effects of the subterranean cultural exchange of this kind? Well, one of them is a Holocaust-like denialism, evident in the audacious defence of Sayedee as proclaimed loudly at the recent rally in West Bengal.

First published in The Friday TimesApril 19-25, 2013 - Vol. XXV, No. 10

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bangladesh is divided over justice for victims of past massacres


The sea of humanity besieging the Shahbag area in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, for the last two months, has had an unusual demand – unusual, at least, when it comes to the Indian subcontinent. The demonstrators have been clamoring for justice for the victims of the genocidal massacres of 1971 that led to the former East Pakistan’s secession from Pakistan.

The demonstrations have been spontaneous, disorganized and chaotic, but also impassioned and remarkably peaceful. Many of the several thousand demonstrators at Shahbag are too young to have had any personal experience of the killings that marked the Pakistani army’s brutal, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to suppress the fledgling independence movement. But they are animated by an ideal – the profound conviction that complicity in mass murder should not go unpunished, and that justice is essential for Bangladeshi society’s four-decade-old wounds to heal fully.

What is curious about this development is that the subcontinent has preferred to forget the injustices that have scarred its recent history. A million people lost their lives in the savagery of the subcontinent’s partition into India and Pakistan, and 13 million more were displaced, most of them forcibly. But not one person was ever charged with a crime, much less tried and punished.

An estimated million more were massacred in Bangladesh in 1971, and only this year have some of the perpetrators’ local allies been tried. Almost every year, somewhere on the subcontinent, riots, often politically instigated, claim dozens – sometimes hundreds and occasionally thousands – of lives in the name of religion, sect, or ethnicity. Again, investigations are conducted and reports are written, but no one is ever brought before the bar of justice.

To paraphrase the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin: The intentional killing of one person is murder, but that of a hundred, a thousand, or a million is merely a grim statistic.

The idealism of Bangladesh’s young demonstrators, however, points to a new development. The outpouring of emotion evident at Shahbag was provoked by a decision of an international criminal tribunal convened by the government. The tribunal, which tries cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, found a prominent member of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, guilty of complicity in the killings of 300 people, but gave him a relatively light sentence of 15 years in prison (prosecutors had sought the death penalty).

By demanding severe punishment for those guilty of war crimes – not the Pakistani Army, long gone, but their local collaborators in groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Al-Badar, Al-Shams and the Razakar irregulars – the protesters are also implicitly describing the society in which they wish to live: secular, pluralist and democratic.

These words are enshrined in Bangladesh’s constitution, which simultaneously declares the republic to be an Islamic state. While some see no contradiction, the fact that many of the collaborators who killed secular and pro-democracy Bengalis in 1971 claimed to be doing so in the name of Islam points to an evident tension.

If any proof of this clash of values were needed, it came in the form of a counter-demonstration against the Shahbag movement led by activists of the fundamentalist Islamic movement Hifazat-e-Islam, which occupied the capital’s Motijheel area. Unlike the Shahbag events, the counter demonstration was well-planned and organized, and conveyed the stark message that there was an alternative point of view in this overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The bearded, skull-cap-wearing protesters shouted in unison their agreement with speakers who denounced the International Crimes Tribunal. Their supporters include activists of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami-Bangladesh, which has fought alongside the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The debate between religious fundamentalism and secular democracy is not a new one on the subcontinent. But the issue of justice for the crimes of 1971 has brought the divide into sharp relief. The Shahbag protesters reject Islamic extremists’ influence in Bangladesh, and even call for organizations like Jamaat-e-Islami to be banned, while Hifazat-e-Islam and its supporters want the country’s liberal forces repressed, secularist bloggers arrested, and strict Islamism imposed on Bangladeshi society.

The young people at Shahbag are mainly urban, educated and middle class; Hifazat derives its support mainly from the rural poor. Traditional versus modern, urban versus rural, intellectuals versus the peasantry: these divisions are the stuff of political cliche. But, all too often, cliches become established because they are true.

The Bangladeshi government’s sympathies are closer to the Shahbag protesters than to the Hifazat counter-demonstrators. But it must navigate a difficult path, because both points of view have significant public support. The authorities have even taken steps to appease the Islamists by arresting four bloggers for their posts. But the government remains resolute in its support for the international tribunal.

The irony is that true religion is never incompatible with justice. But when justice is sought for the crimes of those who claim to be acting in the name of religion, the terms of the debate change. The issue then becomes one that has been avoided in Bangladesh for too long: whether claiming to act according to the requirements of piety provides an exemption for murder.

The outcome of the standoff in Dhaka should provide an answer in Bangladesh, and its implications could reverberate far and wide.

First published in the print edition of The Daily Star, Lebanon, April 23, 2013

Shashi Tharoor is India’s minister of state for human resource development. His most recent book is “Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.” 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bangladesh: Talibanised Surge


On April 6, 2013, in the biggest-ever show of force by Islamists in the country in recent times, hundreds of thousands of members of the Chittagong-based radical Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), organized a 'Long March' from Chittagong to Dhaka, and held a massive rally in the Bangladesh capital. Over two million people are estimated to have participated in the rally. The HeI demanded enactment of blasphemy laws by authorities to punish people who 'insult Islam'. In a written statement, HeI Ameer (Chief) Shah Ahmad Shafi declared, "Our current movement is not political. Government has to agree to our 13-point demand in order to continue in office." HeI gave the Government an April 30, 2013, deadline to meet its demands or face a 'Dhaka Siege' programme from May 5, 2013.

Earlier, on March 9, 2013, Shafi had put forward a 13-point demand at the Olama-Mashayekh (Islamic Scholars) Convention organized at the Darul Uloom Hathazari Madrassah (Islamic Seminary) Convention Hall in Chittagong District. On the same day, HeI's "central joint secretary general" Maulana Moinuddin Ruhi, gave the call for the April 6 rally.

The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) Government initially attempted to clamp down on the Long March, with Security Force (SFs) arresting 30 HeI cadres from a bus in Palashbari area of Gaibandha District on April 5, 2013, while they were going towards Dhaka to join the rally. This, however, led to a rise in tensions, culminating in large scale violence. Notably, Junaed Babunagri, HeI 'secretary general', addressing a Press Conference in Dhaka on April 5, 2013, warned, "(the) Long March towards Dhaka will be spread across the country if the Government resists the HeI cadres on their way to Dhaka." According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, since that incident, at least five AL activists have been killed and 286 others have been injured across the country (all data till April 21, 2013) in incidents involving HeI.  Some of the violent incidents include:

April 5: HeI cadres killed AL activist Shahidul Islam (36) at Dhaka's Kamrangirchar.

April 6: An AL activist identified as Nowsher Ali (25) was killed by HeI cadres at Bhanga Chourasta in Bhanga sub-District of Faridpur District.

April 11: Three AL activists were killed as HeI and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) cadres clashed with AL men in Fatikchhari sub-District of Chittagong District.

The HeI-provoked violence and success of the rally forced the Government to announce that it would "consider the demands" of the fundamentalist formation, and emboldened Shafi, who, on April 11, 2013, declared that the Islamists had united under the HeI banner after a long time, and threatened the AL regime, "If you want to stay in power, you will have to meet our demands. Or else, there will be dire consequences."

Formed some time in 2010 under Shafi's leadership, the HeI only came to prominence after it raised its 13-point demands and subsequently provoked violence. Reports suggest that some HeI leaders have close links with the Pakistani Army as well as various Islamist terrorist and fundamentalist organizations. HeI's chief, Shafi, moreover, had allegedly collaborated with the Pakistan Army during the 1971 Liberation War. Maulana Habib ur Rahman, the principal organiser of the April 6, 2013, Long March, was a leader of the terrorist Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and has links with international Islamist terrorist formations, a fact he personally confirmed in an interview in a special bulletin of Islami Biplob (Islamic Revolution), published in Sylhet on August 20, 1998.

More worryingly, HeI maintains close ties with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) as well as JeI, which, along with its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), has brought the nation to a standstill since the beginning of 2013, and many of whose top leaders are at the centre of the War Crimes Trials.South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) data shows that Bangladesh has recorded 145 fatalities related to Islamist extremism since January 21, 2013, when the first verdict in the War Crimes Trials was delivered against JeI leader Maulana Abul Kalam Azadalias Bachchu Razakar. Razakar was sentenced to death.

Indeed, State Minister for Law Quamrul Islam on April 5, 2013, observed, "There are JeI-BNP men in HeI. They may unleash terrorism and create anarchy under the guise of HeI." He warned, however, "No matter who you are, action will be taken if you are used by JeI-BNP men in creating anarchy." Further, on April 11, Syed Ashraful Islam, AL General Secretary and Local Government and Rural Development Minister, while addressing a Roundtable Conference, stated, "The April 6 grand rally was not HeI's; BNP-JeI had organized the programme under the banner of HeI, and had hoped that the rally would have continued for four days, and that the Government would have been forced to step down within this period."

On the positive side, however, progressive and pro-Liberation groups have come forward to protest against HeI's 'demands'. The Bangladesh Islamic Front (BIF), a leading Islamic political party which supported the Liberation War in 1971, condemned HeI and its (BIF) secretary-general M. A. Momen, noted, on April 5, 2013, "HeI has no Islamic ideology, rather they are confusing the innocent Muslims." Likewise, Bangladesh Khedmot-e-Islam, another pro-Liberation religious group, termed the followers of HeI 'atheists' and declared that the 'non-Muslims' had called for the Long March.

Later, on April 8, 2013, some 400 Dhaka University teachers demanded punishment of HeI for its stand against the spirit of the Liberation War and core ideals of the country. Urging the Government not to give in to the radical Islamist group, their statement read: "All 13-points of this organization's demand clash with the core principles and spirit of Bangladesh. This is a blatant attempt to hinder the progress of Bangladesh." Similarly, leaders of Peshajibi Shomonnoy Parishad, a body of professionals, addressing a Press meet at Dhaka Reporters Unity on April 11, 2013, declared that HeI's 13-point demand was against the progress of women and the nation. They observed, moreover, that HeI cadres barred women from entering its rally in Dhaka city and harassed several female journalists performing their professional duties, on April 6.

Bangladesh is locked in a struggle between those who supported the Liberation war, and those who collaborated with Pakistan in the atrocities of 1971. The latter have sought to protect themselves under the banner of radical Islam, and to manipulate public sentiments, both to escape culpability for their criminal past, and to dominate the fractious politics of the country. This struggle has now come to a decisive point, with many of the worst offenders now arraigned before the War Crimes Tribunals, and three of them already convicted. If this process continues unhindered, the very existence of Pakistan-backed radical Islamist formations in Bangladesh will come under threat. Unsurprisingly, these groupings are fighting back with everything they can harness. For the first time in recent history, however, a popular resistance to these extremist creeds and the violence and disruptions they are engineering, has taken shape in the Shahbagh demonstration, which has continued, uninterrupted, since February 5, 2013, in support of the War Crimes Trials and the Government's initiatives to bring their perpetrators to justice. The Islamist extremist parties appear willing to lead Bangladesh into anarchy to push their agenda. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has shown determination, on April 8, 2013, by firmly rejecting the HeI's demand for a new anti-blasphemy law. It remains to be seen whether her determination will suffice to neutralize the extremist surge and the Opposition's mischief, as elections approach.

First published in South AsiaIntelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 11, No. 42, April 22, 2013

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

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Islamist agitation fuels unrest in Bangladesh

Photo: Makiko Segawa - Posters demanding trial of crime against humanity 
JOHN CHALMERS, Reuters, Dhaka

Haider was a blogger, one of hundreds in Bangladesh demanding the death penalty for Islamist leaders accused of wartime atrocities, whose grisly murder swelled the crowds at student-led rallies many hailed as a "Bangladesh Spring".

But now, a radical pro-Islam movement has emerged to counter the students it sneers at as "atheist bloggers".

Known as Hefajat-e-Islam, it has given the government until May 5 to introduce a new blasphemy law, reinstate pledges to Allah in the constitution, ban women from mixing freely with men and make Islamic education mandatory - an agenda critics say would amount to the 'Talibanisation' of Bangladesh.

The clash of ideologies could plunge Bangladesh into a cycle of violence as the two main political parties, locked in decades of mutual distrust, exploit the tension between secularists and Islamists ahead of elections that are due by next January.

"This is a confrontation between secular and conservative orthodox interpretations of religion," said Muhammad Zamir, a former career diplomat and now a newspaper columnist.

Blaming the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for encouraging Hefajat to square off against the students, he said "they now realise they have opened Pandora's box".

Already dozens of people have been killed in clashes this year, mostly between Islamist party activists and security forces, and a series of general strikes called by opposition parties is starting to bite into the Muslim-majority country's fragile economy.


What is now Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule of India in 1947. The country, then known as East Pakistan, won independence with India's help in December 1971 following a nine-month war against the rest of Pakistan.

The trigger for this year's spasm of unrest came in February when a tribunal set up by the government to investigate abuses during the war sentenced a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party to life in prison, sparing him execution.

Jamaat, an Islamist ally of the BNP that opposed independence from Pakistan, denies accusations that some of its leaders committed murder, rape and torture during the conflict.

Wrangling over a war that ended 42 years ago might puzzle outsiders, but it underlines the unresolved rift within this South Asian country of 160 million between secular nationalism and a belief that Islam is the defining core of the state.

The tribunal's decision not to sentence Abdul Quader Mollah to death sparked public outrage that was fuelled by secular activists who used blogs and social media websites to call for mass protests.

Tens of thousands poured into the Shahbag area of central Dhaka, staging rallies and vigils. The rise of their movement was soon referred to as a "Tahrir Square" moment, after the scene of protests in Cairo that led to the overthrow of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Imran H. Sarker, who gave up his full-time job as a physician to lead the movement, says that some 60,000 Internet activists have now united under the "Shahbag" banner against war crimes and Islamic fundamentalism.

His group now also wants the government to ban Jamaat, whose student wing ordered the slaying of blogger Haider, according to the confessions of five students who say they carried it out.

"They don't even love this country," Sarker, a softly spoken 29-year-old, told Reuters at a medical university in Dhaka, railing against the Islamist party. "When we play cricket against Pakistan ... they take along a Pakistani flag."

He denied charges that "Shahbag" enjoys backing from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's party, the centre-left Awami League, which critics say is exploiting the war tribunal to win votes.

However, his movement's decision to target Jamaat convinced many that Sarker is a pawn of the government. It shifted the narrative of the public quarrelling from war crimes to religion, and it spurred a backlash from Islamist forces.

Blood-letting erupted across the country at the end of February when the war crimes tribunal condemned a top leader of the Jamaat party to hang.

The army was deployed after furious Jamaat activists attacked police with crude bombs, swords and sticks, burnt down houses of Awami League leaders and Hindus, and raided Hindu temples. At least 30 people were killed on the day of the ruling alone, and the toll ratcheted up over the next few days.


The emergence of Hefajat-e-Islam since then was the Islamist answer to "Shahbag", whose momentum appears to have fizzled out. Over 100,000 people massed in central Dhaka on April 6 to rally behind the new movement, whose name means 'protector of Islam'.

Among the speakers at that rally was Habibur Rahman, head of a madrasa - or religious school - who told local media after a trip to Afghanistan in 1998 that he had met former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and praised "the total victory of Taliban and establishment of an Islamic state in Afghanistan".

One of Hefajat-e-Islam's leaders is Mufti Fayez Ullah, who spoke to Reuters from a mosque that is set among the narrow bustling streets of old Dhaka and hums with the sound of boys reciting from the Koran, Islam's holy book.

"We have been termed as Taliban, but this is absolutely false, baseless and nothing but propaganda against us," he said. "But the Shahbag people are against Islam. They humiliate men with beards and caps. It cannot be tolerated."

He said Hefajat-e-Islam's supporters would bring Dhaka to a standstill on May 5 if the government did not meet a list of 13 demands, which include the call for a new law against blasphemy.

Several more verdicts are likely to be handed down by the war crimes tribunal in coming months, keeping alive tensions that analysts say the government and its arch-foes - the BNP and Jamaat - will try to use to their advantage as elections loom.

For now, the bloggers vs. Islam feud has diverted attention from a stand-off between Prime Minister Hasina and BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia over whether to install a caretaker authority to ensure a free and fair election.

Both heirs to political dynasties, Hasina and Khaleda have rotated as prime minister since 1991 amid unending enmity.

Diplomats in Dhaka say the interim administration row will come to a head around September.

If that impasse is not broken, the BNP may boycott the poll, unleashing fresh unrest - or there could be a repeat of 2007, when the army stepped in and installed a provisional government to crack down on political thuggery and violence.

Additional reporting by Ruma Paul and Serajul Quadir; Editing by Nick Macfie

First syndicated by Reuters, April 16, 2013