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Friday, February 14, 2014

Are Attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh Religiously Motivated?

The first month of 2014 was a tough one for Hindus in Bangladesh. Violence raged in over two dozen separate Hindu villages across the country, ending in the murder of two men, the rape of at least five women, and the destruction of many homes, temples and businesses. Typically, the attacks involve assailants from outside the villages. They continue a pattern that injured 188 Hindus in 2013.

In this South Asian nation of 153 million, Hindus make up a scant 8.5% of the population. As a minority, they are often singled out for abuse. “It has almost become a norm to attack the Hindus in Bangladesh after the general elections every five years,” Adhir Pal, an elderly Hindu, told national media outlet When I visited his village, Malopara, this January, every neighbor I interviewed seemed to think that violent intrusions are a frequent experienced for Hindus in Bangladesh.

It’s easy to conclude that the repeated attacks on Hindus are coming from Muslims, since this group constitutes 89% of all Bangladeshis. But does the religious definition of these groups mean the attacks are motivated by religious differences, or could they be the result of one or more other factors?

As Adhir Pal points out, some violence is linked to national politics. Residents say the attacks in Malopara in January came from local people aligned with Bangladesh’s opposition parties, which includes the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Islamic fundamentalist ally Jamaat-e-Islami. The attackers, some of whom carried guns, told villagers not to vote for the incumbent Awami League. The Hindu community said their aggressors had correctly identified their allegiance to the ruling party, but since they regard attacks as nearly inevitable, residents say they voted for Awami League anyway. (The party won the January 5 election while the opposition boycotted it and lost parliamentary seats.)

As a slim minority of Bangladesh’s voters, of course, Hindus could not elect any party alone. But while the conflation of politics and religion accounts for some attacks, it doesn’t explain others.

Reports of some altercations describe long-simmering personal resentments coming to a head at minor conflicts over sports matches, wedding plans and the like. But in most attacks, causes are impersonal. In Dinajpur, a district near Bangladesh’s northern border, residents said their attackers were landless peasants who had migrated from India years before and that the attacks were an attempt to scare them into fleeing, leaving their farmland up for grabs. In a country where climate change looms, conflicts over land are not capricious or surprising.

The pressure to grab arable land recalls the preludes to Rwandan genocide of 1994, which was motivated in part by overpopulation. The two conflicts share many underlying factors, most of which are traceable to power shifts after colonialism’s end. What they don’t share, however, is a religious basis. (In Rwanda, the Hutu ethnic majority slaughtered the Tutsi minority, and the Christianity common to both groups wasn’t the issue.)

With all that said, religious differences probably did influence some of the two dozen Bangladeshi villages that saw violence last month. In some localities, Hindu temples and their idols became the focal point of vandalism. The group most commonly fingered as perpetrators for attacks was Jamaat-e-Islami. The Islamist group has been increasingly pushed to the outskirts of Bangladeshi electoral politics, but remains popular—and angry—nationwide.

Ultimately, the multiple causes of anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh point to the complexity of identifying religious motivations for conflict. But they also suggest that conflicts that appear religious may be solved through multiple means—which means the irreducible philosophical differences between faiths need not be a block to peace.

In January, over three dozen organizations held rallies demanding justice and protection for Hindus. Eventually, the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister, and even the opposition party leaders joined in. Although the attacks have not yet fully abated, the majority of the country seems to want peace.

First published in the Religion Dispatches, University of South California, USA, February 13, 2014

M. Sophia Newman, MPH, is a freelance writer living in Dhaka, Bangladesh. See more of her writing at

Friday, February 07, 2014

Crime and politics in Bangladesh: Bang bang club

More trials for Bangladesh’s deflated opposition

TEN years after they arrived, the weapons have found their victims. In April 2004 police in Chittagong, the main port city of Bangladesh, intercepted a shipment of rifles, submachine guns with silencers, 25,000 hand grenades and more, worth some $5m. Made in China, the arms may have been shipped with help from Pakistani spies set on causing trouble for India. The weapons were intended for rebels in Assam state in India’s north-east, where insurgencies rumble on.

For years in Bangladesh the legal case went nowhere. Those involved in the arms shipment were ignored. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), under Khaleda Zia, then prime minister, showed no interest in prosecutions. Only after the Awami League, the current government, took office in 2009 did prosecutors begin to consider the crime seriously. On January 30th a trial court sentenced 14 men—most of them from or affiliated to opposition parties—to death on smuggling charges related to the arms haul.

Assuming the sentences are upheld by the higher courts, they carry great political as well as legal weight. By implication, they embroil Mrs Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman. He is judged by many to be the BNP’s next leader—though he is living in London while corruption cases pile up against him at home. Among those sentenced to hang is Lutfuzzaman Babar, a long-time flunky of Mr Rahman’s. This week the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, vowed that her government would work to prove that, in the light of Mr Rahman’s influence at the time, he knew all about the weapons.

Others sentenced to death include a former head of Bangladesh’s military intelligence, another high-ranking Bangladeshi spy, plus (in absentia) a leader of an Assamese insurgent group who is on India’s most-wanted list. Of major political significance, the court also found guilty Motiur Rahman Nizami, who leads Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party and a close ally of the BNP. He has already been indicted by a separate court, looking at war crimes committed in Bangladesh’s war of secession from Pakistan in 1971. He faces the prospect of being sentenced to death twice over.

Jamaat has promised protests against the smuggling verdicts. Though the party has a reputation for street violence, its capacity to create trouble seems diminished in recent months. Many Jamaat activists have either been arrested or shot dead. The BNP also looks utterly broken, unable to persuade followers to return to disruptive street protests against Sheikh Hasina, whether over court cases or elections.

By contrast, the prime minister looks increasingly content. Her Awami League won a general election on January 5th that was boycotted by the BNP and Jamaat. Aid donors and other observers who worried about the poll’s credibility now seem to be coming to terms with five more years of Sheikh Hasina. The official aid agencies of Britain and America have funded an opinion survey suggesting that the Awami League would have won the election even without the boycott. That is a handy fillip for the government.

India, Bangladesh’s giant neighbour, will be pleased with things, too. It is especially close to Sheikh Hasina and the avowedly secular Awami League, and it endorsed the January election. Those who set foreign policy in Delhi are anxious to prevent Bangladesh becoming, as it was before, a haven for insurgent groups that operate in India. They want Bangladesh to resist the sort of Islamist extremism prevalent in Pakistan. And they want it to help limit the flow of illegal Bangladeshi migrants flooding into India for work.

Sheikh Hasina shares India’s aims, while doing everything to flatten the opposition at home. It bodes ill for democratic government. But the state of the opposition—pinned down in court, on the streets and in parliament—suggests a modicum of outward calm may prevail for a while.

First published in the Economist, February 8th 2014

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Bangladesh garment factories still exploiting child labour for UK products

ITV undercover documentary finds girls as young as 13 forced to work 11 hours a day in unsafe conditions, despite factory collapse last year that killed 1,130


Bangladesh garment factories producing clothes for British retailers are forcing girls as young as 13 to work up to 11 hours a day in appalling conditions, according to an ITV documentary shown on February 6th night.

Undercover filming by the Exposure programme found clothes produced for Lee Cooper, BHS and other UK retailers in factories where workers were physically and verbally abused and fire safety ignored.

Despite promises made by retailers to improve conditions following last year's Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, where at least 1,130 people died and thousands more were injured, staff as young as 13 are filmed in factories being kicked, slapped and hit with a used fabric roll as well as abused with physical threats and insults.

Fire escapes at one factory, Vase Apparel, are shown padlocked, even though hundreds of garment workers have died in fires after being trapped in similar factories over the past few years.

ITV producers fitted local garment workers with secret cameras to record the conditions. One of the women is forced to work 89 hours over seven days at Olira Fashions in Mirpur, a district of Dhaka. Male managers abuse younger girls who they think are not working fast enough and exhausted staff are told they must work all night to get out a big order. They are threatened with beatings or the sack if they don't comply.

Despite rules that under-18s can only work five hours, many are forced to complete 11-hour days, the documentary claims. One 14-year-old girl tells the undercover camera carrier: "We have to work to eat."

Workers at Olira, who are seen producing Lee Cooper jeans – which the factory boss says are destined for the UK – earn basic pay of £30 a month, the programme claims.

At Vase, where BHS school shirts are seen, managers were filmed coaching staff on how to answer any questions put by inspectors who are arriving later that day from a major customer. Staff are told to lie about their working conditions. Managers insist safety equipment that slows production has to be used during the audit, but can be put away once the audit is over. Staff are seen signing documents to say they received nonexistent health and safety training that will be presented to auditors.

The revelations are embarrassing for another retailer, N Brown, whose Southbay shirts sold via its Jacamo website were filmed being produced at Vase. N Brown, which also owns lingerie website, played a leading role in an international factory safety agreement put together in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse.

An N Brown staff member is seconded to a leading role in the Bangladesh Accord on Fire & Building Safety, which has pledged to check and rectify safety measures in over 1,000 factories in Bangladesh.

Amid huge pressure to improve workers' conditions in the country's £13bn garment industry, nearly 150 retailers and brands, including Arcadia, have signed up to the accord, which aims to survey up to 1,500 factories by October this year as well as train workers.

There is also a separate, weaker, safety deal mostly signed by US retailers including Asda's owner Walmart, while the UK government is backing a Bangladesh government initiative which promises to improve conditions in factories not covered by the other two projects.

N Brown said it had a contract with Vase's sister company Basic Shirts but had terminated that deal after being contacted by the Exposure team.

It said in a statement: "The conditions found at Vase Apparels are wholly unacceptable, illegal and morally reprehensible. We were not aware that any of our products were being made at Vase Apparels. The work had been contracted to Basic Shirts, which operates out of a different factory entirely, and which we had previously audited as part of our sourcing procedures."

Arcadia said that it had been informed that some of its goods had been stored at Vase but made elsewhere at an accredited supplier which owns other factories in Bangladesh.

The company said: "We have carried out a full investigation with our supplier The Fielding Group Ltd, who has categorically confirmed to us that no BHS goods have been made at Vase Apparels.

"Our group operates in over 40 countries and arranges inspections of hundreds of factories each year. We take our responsibilities seriously in all the countries our suppliers source from." ITV said Lee Cooper declined to be interviewed for the programme, and rejected an offer to view the footage. Lee Cooper's parent firm Iconix did not respond to the Guardian's request for a comment.

In a brief statement to ITV, it said: "We employ a strict set of rules to ensure our licensees source responsibly and can confirm that this production is either counterfeit or unauthorised.

"We will take all steps to eliminate the unlawful production of Lee Cooper branded products."
The owner of the Vase factory said that garments were sometimes brought to Vase from other factories for presentations and buyers meetings. It told ITV it carried out "ethical compliance audits" to ensure worker safety. The Olira owners told the programme: "We don't use child labour" but said another factory in the same building had been using children.

First published in The Guardian, February 6, 2014

Monday, February 03, 2014

Pakistan, time to face the truth about Bangladesh


There was some buzz again last week that Dr Manmohan Singh was contemplating a visit to Pakistan next month, before he hangs his boots. It is one of those rumours which in the past nine years has been neither denied by the foreign office nor confirmed. And the ‘news’ gained ground when a visiting bunch of Pakistani journalists reported that all that was left was a fixing of dates. Meanwhile it appears that the Prime Minister might instead be traveling to Myanmar to attend the summit of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). The interesting grouping consists of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal. Look East Sir, look East.

Pakistan is too occupied with ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban — which it calls a stake holder in its domestic political process — to bother with the Indian Prime Minister. Try figuring this out: the Taliban has asked Imran Khan to negotiate on its behalf in the peace talks with the government!

Last week, that Pakistani ‘social worker of repute’ Hafiz Saeed, no wait, ‘Professor’ Hafiz Saeed said in a rally that India was exerting pressure on the Bangladeshi government to hang Jamaat leaders. He was referring to the death sentence handed down by a Chittagong court to 14 men, including Bangladesh Jamaat chief Motiur Rahman Nizami, in the sensational 10 truck arms smuggling case of 2004. ULFA chief Paresh Barua was also given the death penalty in absentia.

In April 2004, Bangladesh police had seized 4,930 types of sophisticated firearms, 27,020 grenades, 840 rocket launchers, 300 rockets, 2,000 grenade launchers, 6,392 magazines and 1,140,520 bullets when they were being loaded on to 10 trucks headed to North East India. Barua, then in Bangladesh, worked closely with the ISI and the BNP, especially Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rehman. Both Barua and Tarique fled Bangladesh when the Awami League government came to power.

The ISI has always maintained its links with the Jamaat in Bangladesh, either through Bangladesh’s National Security Intelligence during BNP rule or lately through various non-state actors. Three Myanmar born Pakistani Taliban operatives were caught in Dhaka last month on a ‘jihad mission’.

Not just the ISI, Pakistan’s politicians too are vocal in their support for trans-national jihadi terrorists. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Chaudhary Nisar described the capital punishment to Bangladesh’s war criminal Abdul Qadir Mollah as ‘judicial murder’. Mollah, known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, and his Al Badr cohorts smashed to death a two year old on the floor, slit the throats of his pregnant mother and two sisters, and raped his two other sisters, one of whom died from her wounds. The one who survived testified against Mollah. 43 years later, Mollah was convicted and hanged for killing 344 civilians in 1971. A few days later, Pakistani politician Javed Hashmi (PTI) called Mollah as Shaheed-e-Pakistan. These are the kind of men that Pakistan’s leaders call heroes.

More than four decades after losing half of its country, Pakistan has still not come to terms with the fact that Bangladesh is systematically going ahead with bringing to trial the war crimes accused of 1971. And during that process, historical facts are coming to the fore once again. Pakistanis have been fed on a diet of lies about their history and their leaders are quite content to perpetuate that state of ignorance.

The denial runs deeper as evidenced from a report in Pakistani newspaper, The Nation (Jan 24, 2014) which denounces a Bollywood film to be released this month as an Indian conspiracy to defame Pakistan rather than an artistic interpretation by a private Indian film producer. The article says, “Based on anti-Pakistan propaganda, ‘The Bastard Child’, (now renamed ‘Children of War’) a Hindi language movie, has recently been released in India to tarnish the image of Pakistan and its armed forces around the world.”

“The movie, which has been made on the subject of 1970-1971 events in East Pakistan, depicts Pakistan Army in East Pakistan as an occupation army. It screens alleged atrocities committed by Pakistan Army personnel in East Pakistan, which ignited flames for its separation… Notwithstanding, peace endeavours initiated by government of Pakistan, India does not spare any opportunity to prick Pakistan. It quotes “sources” saying “This propaganda movie is an attempt to bring bad name to Pakistan.” If the YouTube trailers of the film provoked this extreme reaction, it is quite clear that the film will be banned in Pakistan, depriving yet another generation from knowing the truth about 1971.

First published in Mid-Day, India, January 3, 2014
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash