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Monday, July 03, 2017

Black Friday: A year ago ISIS militants deadly seize

Photo: Smiling five militants posted in ISIS online

The country's past as a recruitment hotbed for global Islamist jihad returns to haunt its future as it grapples with a new wave of terror


Bangladesh is still coming to grips with the exceptional brutality of its worst terrorist outrage, the horrific Black Friday attack at Dhaka's Holey Artisan cafe on July 1. Twenty hostages, including 18 foreign nationals and two policemen, were killed when the six terrorists, said to be an IS-affiliated group, took them hostage. Indian teenager, Tarishi Jain, was among those who were shot, had their throats slit and bodies mutilated.

Five of the six terrorists were shot dead after security forces stormed the cafe following a 10-hour standoff. The sixth survived and is being interrogated by security forces.

What has shocked Bangladeshis is the profile of the terrorists. Mostly in their early 20s, they were products of the country's upper middle class elite (one was the son of a senior member of the ruling Awami League party. Some are even believed to have been regulars at the two-storeyed cafe located in Dhaka's upscale Gulshan area.

The attack marked the debut of what has been the prototype home-grown terrorist in recent times, well-educated and well-versed in using social media tools, fitting the cosmopolitan profile terrorist outfits like Al Qaeda and IS have used in recent terror attacks from Paris to Istanbul. "Gone are the madrasa recruits from the impoverished rural countryside," says Humayun Kabir, senior research director at the Dhaka-based think-tank, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.

The attack was the culmination of a wave of atrocities by unidentified machete-wielding assailants against the country's religious minorities. Hindus, Buddhists and Christians priests, bloggers, writers, publishers and moderate Muslims. Islamic extremists have killed over 40 people in such attacks since 2013. Over 16,000 people were arrested in a crackdown in June this year but clearly it was a little too late.

Typically, the government's response has been one of disbelief. "Anyone who believes in religion cannot do such an act," Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina said on July 2. "They do not have any religion. Their only religion is terrorism."

A day after the attack, IS posted photographs showing five of the youth posing in front of the group's black flags, claiming credit for the attack. Bangladesh officials, however, are still calling it the work of local militants.

If Black Friday exposed the chinks in the country's security system, it also exposed the government's refusal to recognise the Muslim radicals in their midst. "Hasina used to scoff at claims of homegrown Islamist terrorists linked to the global terror network," says columnist Syed Badrul Ahsan. "She blamed opposition leader Khaleda Zia for harbouring terrorists."

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal had termed the spate of killings over the past year as isolated incidents. He clearly had no inkling of what was coming. "It was a time bomb waiting to explode," says liberation war veteran Sachin Karmaker.

Bangladesh's history of state-backed radicalisation dates back to the late 1970s and can be traced specifically to the close ties between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami whose leaders had participated in the genocide of 1971.

In the 1980s, 8,000 Bangladeshi youth, many of them left and socialist-leaning, volunteered to fight for the Palestine Liberation Organisation, a year after Yasser Arafat visited Dhaka to a warm welcome from media and political circles. Most of them returned home after the defeat and expulsion from Lebanon in 1982. Soon after 9/11, over a thousand Bangladeshi nationals who had joined the Taliban, fled to Pakistan when the American coalition invaded Afghanistan. Since then, Bangladesh has been convulsed with the attempts of the Afghan veterans to launch a jihad in their native country.

Counter-terrorism security agencies have had some success in the past, which the present Hasina regime, in power since 2008, has had too, dismantling some terror cells. The Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) spilled over into the neighbouring Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. Since then, possibly with the full knowledge of domestic security agencies, hundreds of Bangladeshi fighters, most of them poor rural youth, have joined secret wars in 36 countries, from Chechnya in Russia to Aceh in Indonesia.

The new phase of Bangladesh's war with itself began in the wave of the recent machete attacks. In most cases, the purpose of the attacks and the identities of the perpetrators remain a mystery. An international outcry forced the government to respond by banning a dozen Islamist outfits, including the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), believed to be behind the blogger attacks. However, the fact is that both the Hasina and earlier Khaleda Zia governments have harboured Islamist groups at some point and refrained from antagonising the clerics. Both have also backed off from implementing policies like women's empowerment and a national education policy (religious parties call it anti-Islamic).

Counter-terrorism specialists say Bangladesh is unprepared for this new form of terrorism. Online recruiters use social media to recruit their targets. Sleeper cells in the heart of the cities and towns run on small budgets, secret safehouses hide would-be jihadists while the familiarisation and adaptation jigs are on. Recruiters spend cash to procure weapons and bombs from gun-runners. It's during the internship that the future jihadists carry out the hit-and-run machete attacks. The reward for a good performance is a promotion to the sleeper cells, explains Kabir.

An unknown number of militants have escaped police dragnets to join IS in Syria and Iraq. The Bangladesh Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence Bureau, a CIA-trained outfit, does not know the exact number as yet. It does not know how many may have travelled to the terror hotspots to join IS . It does not know how many have returned either. Just as it doesn't know how many attackers like the Black Friday six are waiting to strike.

First published in India Today magazine, July 7, 2016

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is an award winning investigative journalists and Special Correspondent of The Asian Age, published from Dhaka, Bangladesh

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Repair of roads to Rangamati would take weeks

Candle light vigil for those dead in massive landslides - Photo: Facebook

Rangamati is cut off from rest of the Bangladesh. The unprecedented landslides in Rangamati which damaged the vital road infrastructures to and from the picturesque hill town.

Two roads which connect Rangamati have been devoured in the landslides during torrential rains in advent of monsoon.

Already, Barrister Anisul Islam Mahmud, Minister, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs (MoCHTA) Bir Bahadhur, State Minister, Secretary of MoCHTA, Naba Bikram Kishore Tripura, Additional Secretary Kamal Talukder, Joint Secretary, MoCHTA, Sudatta Chakma, are in Rangamati to assess the situation.

The Ministers and senior officials in Rangamati held coordination meetings with officials of the district administration officials and Bangladesh Army and that the crucial road communication “will take a long time to repair”, wrote Bikram Kishore Tripura in Facebook on Saturday.

A crucial meeting of Relief and Rehabilitation Coordination was held on Friday at Deputy Commissioner, Rangamati's Conference Room. The meeting was attended by Tarun Ghosh, Vice Chairman, Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board (CHTDB), Brig Gen Faruk, Region Commander, Rangamati, Ushaton Talukdar MP, Chakma Circle Chief Barrister Debashish Roy, Riaz Ahmad, Director General, Disaster Management, Rangamati Police Chief Syed Tariqul.

The Secretary also wrote that at “the moment Rangamati is [only] accessible through waterways from Kaptai.”

The death tolls of the massive landslides have killed more than 100 people and nearly 40 are still missing. Rescue operation is going round the clock to find any survivors.

Meanwhile, Rangamati District Administration has banned procession and rallies in the Hill district for a month.

Some has also posted in Naba Bikram Kishore Tripura’s Facebook that the nature has taken its revenge for man-made deforestation, hill-cutting to build houses and agriculture farms.

Former Conservator of Forest, Mihir Kiran, writes: “Very sad and heart breaking. Demographic balance is must for the soil condition of the region. Otherwise we have to face the same unbearable fate every year.”

Tripura in a response said: Ideal but difficult to implement. You (Mihir Kiran) were one of the longest serving CCF of FD. You had the experience of failure in plantation in CHT, of course it was our collective failure, not at all personal. Nature has given us a grim signal. We must act without further delay. Time is running out fast.

However, Kirti Nishan Chakma writes in Facebook that “We can and must dissect the causes that has led to this tragedy. But this can wait a little later.”

“Urgent help is needed at the moment. There is a real risk of crisis of the essentials (rice, dal, salt, medicines, etc.) as that the two roads that connects Rangamati to the rest of the country are now completely cut off and repairing them is likely to take a long time given the hilly terrain,” opines writes Kirti Nishan Chakma, General Secretary at Moanoghar a home for distressed children in the Hills.

“A real scarcity of the essentials, maybe it is panic buying or hoarding by the people that is exhausting the available stocks, maybe it the typical dishonest traders who are trying to make quick bucks on the back of this catastrophe. Whatever are reasons, immediate interventions by the government is needed,” writes General Secretary at Moanoghar.

Already the price of the essentials is rising. It is not only Rangamati town, the entire or most of the Rangamati district could be affected.

However, the MoCHTA Secretary affirms that the government will do the needful for the relief, rehabilitation of the distressed people and repairs and reconstruction of the infrastructures. We have to have some patience.

First published in The Asian Age, July 19, 2017

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is an award winning investigating journalist and is Special Correspondent, The Asian Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

IFJ Press Freedom in South Asia 2016-2017

New Fronts, Brave Voices
Impunity reigns high in crimes against journalists and freethinkers in Bangladesh.

The media in Bangladesh continued to experience intimidation, harassment, attacks and arrests during the period May 2016 to April 2017. Bangladeshi journalists and freethinkers to be framed, attacked and killed for exposing corruption and reporting the news. The downward slide of press freedom in Bangladesh continued in the reported period. Although freedom of expression and freedom of the press are constitutionally guaranteed for every citizen of Bangladesh, the governments enacted various laws hindering these rights. The increased offensive of extremist groups, though not targeting journalists directly during the period of the review, continues to remain a big threat.

Most of the intimidation, detentions and arrests were made under the infamous cybercrime law, Section 57 of Information and Communication Technology Act of 2006 (ICT Act). The draconian law has taken a heavy toll on journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and social media activists, especially users of Facebook. The period has also been challenging for print and electronic media.

The ICT Act, which empowers law enforcers to arrest any person without warrant, has a maximum punishment of 14 years imprisonment. Section 57 of the law criminalises ‘publishing fake, obscene or defaming information in electronic form.’ Critics say that several provisions of this law are either vague or unnecessarily criminalise legitimate expression and recommend that clauses 46 and 57 of the ICT Act should be repealed in their entirety.

Considerable confusion exists within government circles about the draconian law. Several contradictory statements have emerged. The authorities in August 2016 announced that the government was set to amend the ICT Act, but did not set a timeline or comment on scrapping of the law completely.

The government said it was contemplating abolition of Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (Amendment) Act, 2013, by enacting a new law, the ‘Digital Security Act, 2016’, which has been prepared by the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Division. The explanation given for the proposed amendment was that the law conflicts with four Articles of the state constitution and also muzzles the freedom of speech and expression of the media.

However, the proposed draft of the Digital Security Act has drawn some criticism as well and there are fears that it could be more repressive than the existing ICT Act. The draft Act proposes setting up a Digital Security Agency for monitoring and supervising digital content; communications mediums including mobile phones to prevent cyber-crime; a Digital Forensic Lab; and a Bangladesh Cyber Emergency Incident Response Team (Bangladesh-CERT). The Digital Security Agency would be able to order a ban on communication in extraordinary situations on any individual or service provider and these agencies could be legally mandated to carry out activities such as internet shutdowns or surveillance contrary to freedom of expression and press freedom.

The proposed Act also has provisions to control cyber crimes in the form of hacking, impersonation, violation of privacy; and states that ‘any derogatory comments, remarks, campaign or propaganda in electronic media made by a person, institution or foreign citizen, against the war of liberation, or father of the nation or any issue that has been settled by the Court shall amount to an offense’ which are ‘cognizable and non-bailable’. The offense carries punishment ranging from three years in prison to life imprisonment and/or a hefty fine. The wording leaves huge gaps in interpretation and journalists could face a tougher time for their writing published online.

A writ petition was also filed with the High Court on August 26, challenging the legality of Section 57 of the ICT (Amendment) Act, 2013, according to which, if any person deliberately publishes any material in electronic form that causes law and order to deteriorate, prejudices the image of the state or person or causes hurt to religious belief, the offender will be punished for a maximum of 14 years and minimum seven years of imprisonment. The petition placed before the High Court, challenges the section and notes that the provision is in conflict with Articles 27, 31, 32 and 39 of the Constitution. The Editors' Council has demanded cancellation of subsections 1 and 2 of Sec 57 of the Act, saying misuse of those subsections can hinder freedom of the press.

However, in the face of the outcry by media leaders and rights groups, Information Minister Hasanul Haq Innu argued in favour of the controversial Sec 57 of ICT Act.

On January 10, 2017, Bangladesh Law Minister Anisul Huq said the new law on cyber security would supersede the controversial section 57 of the ICT Act.

Nervous about social media networking platforms, especially Facebook, the government published draft guidelines in March 2016 for the civil administration officers on use of social media. The 11-point guideline, advises government officials on how to use their official and personal accounts in social media. The guideline will be applicable for all ministries, departments, agencies, field-level offices, educational and training institutions. In a circular issued to civil administration officers in districts and small towns on October 28 2016, the cabinet division observed that some field-level officials were sharing personal matters on Facebook, unrelated to their work.

Media workers in Bangladesh continued to face risky situations while reporting. On February 2, 2017, 40-year old Abdul Hakin Shimul, a local correspondent of the Bangla-language daily Samakal in Shahjadpur, was shot in the face while covering clashes between rival factions of the ruling Awami League. He died on following day, when he was rushed to a hospital in capital Dhaka. Police have arrested Shahjadpur municipality Mayor Halimul Haque Miru, the prime accused, and the ballistic test report has confirmed that the bullet found in Shimul's body was fired from the mayor’s shotgun. The mayor and other accused are being investigated by the police after the victim's wife filed a murder case against 18 people, including the mayor and his two brothers.

Veteran journalist Shafik Rehman, editor of Bangla monthly magazine Mouchake Dhil and advisor to opposition leader Khaleda Zia, was arrested in April 2016 for allegedly attempting to abduct and murder Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed Joy in the USA. Rehman had been in detention since his arrest, including the prison hospital after his health deteriorated. He was placed in solidarity confinement in prison.

On August 16, 2016, the IFJ, Reprieve, Index of Censorship, Reporters Without Borders and 21 other international press freedom organisations had written a joint letter demanding the immediate release of Rehman. The joint letter that was sent to Bangladeshi Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, Anisul Huq, called for Shafik’s immediate release on the grounds that after more than three months since his arrest, he has been detained without charge and his health is deteriorating. On August 31, the highest court of the country granted bail to octogenarian journalist Shafik Rehman.

On June 11, 2016, a dozen people assaulted reporter Shakil Hasan and cameraperson Shahin Alam of Jamuna TV as they were reporting on the illegal polythene bag factories in the old city of Dhaka.

On January 26, private TV network ATN News cameraperson Abdul Alim and its reporter Ahsan Bin Didar were assaulted and beaten by police during protests by activists of a movement demanding the halting of a coal-fired power plant in the Sunderbans mangrove forest. Riot police with bullet-proof vests along with shotgun-wielding-officers pounced upon the cameraperson without any warning. Alim was pushed to the ground, and kicked with boots and struck several times with batons and shotgun butts. He needed three stitches on his right eyebrow as a result of the beating.

By far the largest number of arrests was made under the ICT Act, bringing into sharp focus the misuse of the law. According to Deutsche Welle, more than 100 arrests have been made under the ICT Act for alleged defamation of the Father of the Nation and his kin. None of these cases were filed by the victim; rather, party men took the matter to court.

On July 12, police had arrested a reporter of a largest circulated local daily Prothom Alo Asaduzzaman Obaed Ongshuman, who is the accused in two cases, including extortion and the notorious ICT Act. Ongshuman was in the court office and was browsing into court documents to determine how many suspects were given bail on drug trade related cases by Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court in capital Dhaka. Some lawyers who were present in court office had an altercation with Ongshuman. He was punched and dragged against his will to the Dhaka Lawyers Association office across the street, where he was confined in the offices.

On August 8, 2016, the elite anti-crime force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested editor Shadat Ullah Khan, executive editor Maksudul Haider Chowdhury and newsroom editor Pranto Polash of online news portal at the offices in the capital Dhaka. The arrests followed a story addressing rumours that Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the son of Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, had been killed in an air crash.

The RAB filed a case against the journalists under the ICT Act. Following the arrests, the government’s Press Information Department (PID) cancelled press accreditation cards for nine journalists from, without providing a reason.

Later in August, the Dhaka Cyber Tribunal granted bail to the three journalists Shahadat Ullah Khan, Maksudul Haider Chowdhury and Pantho Polash.
On September 1, 2016, Siddiqur Rahman, the editor of an specialised education portal ‘Dainik Sikkha’ ( was arrested for publishing six news articles on corruption and favouritism of senior officials of the Department of Education. Rahman, an award winning reporter was detained after Prof. Fahima Khatun, wife of a ruling Awami League parliamentarian Obaidur Muktadir and also sister of Food Minister Kamrul Islam, filed a case under Section 57 of the ICT Act. Khatun, the former Director General of the Higher Secondary Education Directorate, claimed that news claiming corruption during her tenure in the Directorate, ‘defamed and tarnished’ her image and that of the state.

Police spokesperson said, he was arrested on charges of 'cyber crime' by publishing what it described as multiple “fictitious, false and shameful” news on his portal.

On September 1, police arrested Dilip Roy, a left-aligned leader of Rajshahi University's student organisation Biplobi Chhatra Maitri (Revolutionary Students’ Unity), for his Facebook post criticising Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina over her press briefing on a controversial Rampal coal fired power plant.

The university’s pro-government Chhatra (Student) League unit filed a case against the left leaning students’ organisation leader under the Section 57 of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act for his two posts in less than an hour.

On December 24, police arrested Nazmul Huda a correspondent for private satellite network Ekushey TV (ETV) from Savar, in the outskirts of capital Dhaka for inciting unrest with garment workers over wages and benefits. Huda, is also the local correspondent of largest circulated Bangla daily Bangladesh Pratidin. He was accused of "inaccurate reporting" on almost daily protests in Ashulia, home to the industrial zone which produces garments worth USD 30 billion for export, said the local police officer-in-charge.

Journalist leaders and media were baffled to hear that the journalist has been booked under section 57 of ICT Act. Huda's arrest comes after mass protests by thousands of workers prompted the closure of 55 garment factories in Ashulia.

On August 4, 2016, the telecom regulatory body, Bangladesh Telecommunications and Regulatory Commission (BTRC) ordered all International Internet Gateway service providers in Bangladesh to block access to 35 websites, including pro-opposition Sheersha News and Amar Desh online edition.

Both are news portal of a pro-opposition Bangla daily that was shut down in 2013, following government’s cancellation of its license. The BTRC said they were blocked ‘for making objectionable comments about the government’.

After few days, the telecom regulator decided to scrap licenses of 204 internet providers as they allegedly failed to provide operational documents to it after frequent requests.

An order has been issued and copies of the letter effective from August 25 have been sent to the Internet Service Providers (ISP) concerned.

In 2016, the Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report noted that Bangladesh slid down to ‘not free’ from a ‘partly free’ status due to increased hostility against journalists and freethinkers. The government received a lot of backlash for not initiating concrete action to tackle the situation. The government made no efforts in the period under review to improve the situation and the country remains at the dangerous edge of falling further in its press freedom status.

The threats and attacks on journalists from extremists, the harassment on media using repressive laws such as ICT Act, and the increased self-censorship due to fear has led to a situation where independent media and critical opinions are fast perishing.

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Press Freedom Report 2017, published in May 3, 2017

Editor: Laxmi Murthy
Writer: Saleem Samad

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Islamist threats and violence against press freedom

Bangladesh has slipped two notches in the World Press Freedom Index 2017 and has ranked 146th among 180 countries in terms of press freedom.
The Bangladeshi government does not take kindly to criticism of its Constitution or its state religion, Islam. Journalists and bloggers who resist censorship or self-censorship on these subjects risk life imprisonment, the death penalty, or murder by Islamist militants, who often issue online calls for the deaths of outspoken secularist bloggers and writers.
There is real pluralism, but media self-censorship is growing as a result of the endemic violence against journalists and media outlets, and the systematic impunity enjoyed by those responsible. In 2016, the government took a tougher line towards its critics and the media in general.

This was made clear by official statements expressing hostility towards the media, the blocking of dozens of websites, and the many lawsuits brought against journalists by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Hasina, under political duress, looks to the right

Bangladesh's embattled leader has made stunning concessions to Islamic fundamentalists critics say could undermine secularist support for her regime


Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has turned to the right to placate hardline Islamists after facing flak for her recent visit to neighboring India, a trip her opponents have claimed sold out national interests to its giant western neighbor.

Hasina’s concessions to hard-line Islamists have upset her own party supporters who value Bangladesh’s secular heritage and could also rattle India, which sees rising radical Islamist activities in Bangladesh as a growing security threat.

Hasina’s recently concluded four-day visit to India led to 22 new agreements with India, including a crucial US$4.5 billion concessionary line of credit to finance development projects and defense purchases. It was the largest amount India has ever offered Bangladesh or any other neighbor.

The two defense-related memoranda of understanding, however, set tongues wagging in Dhaka, with the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) claiming the deals undermine the autonomy of Bangladesh’s armed forces vis-à-vis India.

BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia, for one, has vowed to review all of Hasina’s deals with India and would scrap those found to go against “national interests” if she rises to power at the next polls, due in December 2018.

BNP joint general secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi has claimed Hasina’s decision to deport anti-India rebels, allowances for India to traverse Bangladesh territory to reach its northeastern territories and use its ports have been one-way deals where Dhaka has received nothing in return.

The biggest issue, however, was Hasina’s inability to notch a water-sharing treaty Bangladesh has sought with India since 2011 on the contested Teesta river. BNP has said Hasina should raise the issue at the United Nations, a confrontational step the premier has declined to take.

Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh carried a draft of the proposed treaty to Dhaka in 2011, but fierce opposition from influential Indian West Bengal state chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who has claimed the treaty would parch her state, forced him to return without a deal.

Singh’s coalition government was dependent on Banerjee’s support for its survival.

Banerjee’s opposition to the treaty also apparently stymied Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid for a breakthrough with Hasina on the issue, which has vexed bilateral relations for years. The joint Hasina-Modi declaration vaguely promised an “early resolution” to the Teesta issue as well as seven other less contentious common rivers.

“Now Modi has to push these deals within this year to give Hasina a fighting chance in next year’s elections,” said Bangladesh watcher Sukhoranjan Dasgupta. “Otherwise the stigma of being an Indian surrogate will sink her.”

Underscoring that political risk, Hasina asked her ruling Awami League party to cancel a public reception it had planned for her return from Delhi. A close aide to Hasina, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the cancellation was motivated by her inability to secure a hoped for breakthrough on the emotive issue.

The local press smelled blood in the water. “India only knows how to take, not how to give,” shrieked Bangla Tribune, a top local broadsheet. “Hasina comes back empty-handed,” wrote another. “Only warmth, no water for Hasina,” The Daily Star ran on its front page.

On one TV channel after another, panelists tore into Hasina, with some commentators even suggesting that India may not have pushed the Teesta deal to send a signal it would not mind a change of regime in Dhaka.

Hasina has responded to the rising criticism with a surprising appeasement of Islamic fundamentalists, a lurch that critics claim could erode support among her government’s most ardent secular backers.

After harshly suppressing past rallies staged by the fundamentalist Hifazat-e-Islam, an Islamist pressure group of madrassah teachers and students, Hasina has recently conceded to two of the group’s key demands: government recognition of Qaumi madrassa degrees, which allow such graduates to compete for state jobs, and the removal of a Greek statue from the premises of the Supreme Court in Dhaka.

Secularist groups view Hasina’s concessions as a conciliatory first step towards bringing hardened Islamists into her beleaguered government. Hifazat-e-Islam’s chief, Allama Shafi, has frequently threatened to curb many of the freedoms women enjoy in Muslim majority Bangladesh, including access to higher education and ability to work outside of their homes.

Shafi heads the board that runs the so-called Qaumi of the Madrassas, widely seen as a breeding ground for jihadis and other Islamist militants.

Bangladesh’s powerful nationalist secular constituency, including veterans of the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan, have been openly peeved by the moves.

“We vote for Hasina and her party, we have shed our blood for this country, but how can we accept a deal with these arch fundamentalists,” said Haroon Habib, now secretary general of the Sectors Commanders Forum, an organization of 1971 liberation war veterans. “This may be a costly mistake.”

Certain ministers in Hasina’s cabinet were also fumed by the concessions to fundamentalists. “The way Hijazat articulate their demands, it seems Bangladesh is not a people’s republic but rather an Islamic republic,” said Cultural Affairs minister Asad U Zaman Noor, a former leading theatre artist and Awami League member.

Other members of her party, however, defended the moves, claiming bizarrely that Hijazat leader Shafi is a voice of Muslim moderation. “Allama Shafi has strongly criticized militancy and suicide bombings as anti-Islam,” said Awami League general secretary and roads minister Obaidul Quader said “That’s a major gain.”

Some analysts suggest Hasina may be seeking to split the hardline Islamist constituency by courting Hifazat to counter BNP’s fundamentalist ally Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest hard-line Islamist group, though at a significant political cost.

“She risks upsetting her own hardcore support base, secular men and women, who are the majority in my country,” said Shahriar Kabir, who heads the Nirmul Committee, a group that pushed for 1971 war crimes trials that led to the conviction and execution of several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders.

Kabir contends that Awami League won elections in 1996 and 2008 because it was able to leverage popular demands for trials of fundamentalist war criminals accused of murder, rape and torture in support of Pakistan’s efforts to break-up the Bengali nationalist struggle.

“But when the swing has been towards fundamentalism, like after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Awami League has lost,” Kabir said.

First published in the Asia Times, April 21, 2017

Subir Baumik, is PhD from Oxford University, is an award winning Indian journalist and specializes in northeast Indian affairs.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Teesta: 'India, Bangladesh fighting over a trickle'


A report prepared by the Bengal government indicates that India and Bangladesh may not be fighting over anything substantial as they try to end the impasse over sharing the waters of Teesta.

The report says the river, in its present state, has only a sixteenth of the water that is needed for agriculture by Indian and Bangladeshi farmers on either side of the border during the dry season, which stretches from February to May. The report has now prompted the Centre to send the Parliamentary Committee on Energy to Sikkim on April 23 to study the eight dams there on the Teesta and whether they are affecting the flow of water in any way.

Prepared by an expert committee set up by the Mamata Banerjee government, the report says the river has only 100 cumecs (cubic metres per second) of water between February and May when the requirement for farmers of both countries (mainly for irrigation of the dry season boro paddy) is around 1600 cumecs.

"It is a rough estimate but the flow of water is so inadequate that, if 50% of the water is given to Bangladesh, it will not only fail to serve Bangladesh's purpose but will also ensure that North Bengal risks facing drought," a senior official at the state secretariat said. "Our chief minister is not against giving water to Bangladesh but she is opposed to sharing Teesta's waters simply because there is no water at all. There are 54 rivers, other than the Teesta, that flow into Bangladesh through Bengal. The state government is ready to share the water of these rivers," the official added echoing Mamata Banerjee's stand at the recent meeting with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in New Delhi.

The report, which has been sent to the Centre, further says that Teesta caters to more 16 lakh hectares of combined land in Bangladesh and India, 9.2 lakh hectares of which are in West Bengal and 6.8 lakh hectares in Bangladesh. "So, if we go by the volume of land on either side of the border that depends on Teesta, West Bengal should get 920 cumecs of water and Bangladesh 680 cumecs. But the flow of water is so inadequate that the state has now decided to irrigate only 52,000 hectares with Teesta's water. It is just not possible to satisfy Bangladesh's demand," the official added.

But Hasina contended during her recent visit that Bangladesh used to receive some water from Teesta till 2011, when the Trinamool Congress came to power in Bengal. Now, it gets only about 20 cumecs during the peak dry season (mainly from a tributary of the Teesta called Dhorla).

Mamata, however, told PM Narendra Modi and Hasina that the projects in Sikkim — eight dams have been built on Teesta there — used up around 60% of the waters available during the lean period, leaving only 40% for North Bengal.

Published in the Times of India, on Apr 16, 2017

Water tortured: The romance between Bangladesh and India is star-crossed

ENGULFED by India, its giant neighbour to the west, north and east, Bangladesh can look small. But it is the world’s eighth most populous country, with one of its fastest-growing economies. And its location, between India and South-East Asia, with a long littoral on the Indian Ocean, puts it in the thick of things, geopolitically speaking.

China clearly sees some potential. Xi Jinping, its president, visited last year and pledged $15bn in loans. China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner—and arms make up a good chunk of that trade. Two Chinese submarines arrived on credit in March. Bangladesh is the third-biggest buyer of Chinese arms, after two other neighbours of India.

India is responding with a charm offensive of its own. When Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, made a four-day state visit to Delhi that concluded on April 10th, her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, made sure she did not go back empty-handed. He offered $5bn in loans, including $1bn for a Russian-backed nuclear plant, Bangladesh’s first; and $500m to buy Indian arms. The two countries signed a defence agreement committing them to deeper co-operation. India promised more cross-border electricity and railway lines.

But there was no progress on what mattered most to Sheikh Hasina: a treaty on how to share the water of the 53 rivers that flow from , Pakistan and Myanmar.

India to Bangladesh. One river in particular, the Teesta, has become the focus of attention. Bangladesh wants the water split evenly, whereas the Indian state of West Bengal claims 55%. Mr Modi has promised to resolve the issue, but his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governs only one of the four states bordering Bangladesh. The chief minister of West Bengal refuses to let him bid away her state’s stake in the Teesta. Sheikh Hasina had made an urgent pitch in the Hindu, an Indian newspaper, arguing “friendship is a flowing river”. She went home shrugging: “We sought water, but got electricity.”

Even if the water of the Teesta was his to give, Mr Modi might find it awkward to become too chummy with Sheika Hasina. Stoking resentment against Muslims, and against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in particular, has proved a successful electoral formula for the BJP. Sheikh Hasina, for her part, is ignoring the Bangladeshi army’s instinctive suspicion of India to sign the security pact. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has accused her of selling out, and promised to scrap it if it comes to power. The Teesta is another handy stick with which the BNP can beat the government. Geography has thrust India and Bangladesh together, but domestic politics still pushes them apart.

Published in the Economist magazine, April 14th 2017

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Parliamentarians at IPU Assembly moots unity to combat terrorism


Parliamentarians at the 136th Inter-Parliamentarian Union (IPU) are poised to adopt a resolution to deal with terrorism and militancy. Terrorism is a global phenomenon and is a threat to all countries.

The delegates of IPU are discussing to forge unity globally to combat terrorism, Secretary General Martin Chungong told the media at press briefing on Monday.

He said the Dhaka Assembly is expected to adopt three resolutions. The first is the role of parliament in preventing outside interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states and the second, promoting cooperation on SDGs with focus on women, and third emergency item resolution.

Parliamentarians are debating on two pressing issues. The first is non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nation states. The second is inclusive financing of women in development.

"Process is in progress in at the conference venue in Dhaka for global parliamentary community," said Chungong at the mega IPU conference in Dhaka.

The five-day IPU Assembly in progress from Saturday with the participation of over 1300  delegates from 131 member states of the century-old organization. The dignity of human rights, sovereignty and women's empowerment were agreed in the conference.

He said women in parliament are very less, IPU is advocating political empowerment of women.

Regarding terrorism, Chungong said that terror networks active in various countries are not localized. There is need for global parliamentary community prevents to fight terrorism, he remarked.

Regarding the general debate on Redressing Inequality: Delivering on dignity and well-being for All, Chungong said IPU will highlight an action-oriented proposal that parliaments are making here when the 136th assembly concludes, it will have a number of things that parliamentarians can follow up theses concretely and device a program to gain measurable achievements over reducing inequality.

"What I'm proposing in the strategy is a series of actions that will help the global parliamentary community prevent those things that lead to terrorism and militancy," IPU Secretary said.

Chungong said, "Violent extremism was born out of frustration, out of inequality in society, out of injustice, violation of human rights and lack of opportunity - so, those are the things we're addressing in the strategy to combat terrorism and militancy."

He said he will brief the executive committee today (Tuesday) on the strategy that the IPU devised to enable the parliamentary community worldwide to combat terrorism. "We shouldn't allow terrorism to occur before you do something about it."

"How parliaments can take practical actions at national and international levels to alleviate inequality and restore the dignity of human being in all aspects of social, political and economic arena," Chungong said.

The emergency item resolution will focus on famine affecting the population of Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Northern Kenya. This proposal was jointly placed by Belgium, the United Kingdom and Kenya.

Besides, the documents of outcomes of the general debate on 'redressing inequalities, delivering on dignity and wellbeing of all' will be adopted at the IPU Assembly on Wednesday, the last day of 136th IPU assembly.

First published in The Asian Age, April 4, 2017

Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), an award winning investigative journalist and Special Correspondent of The Asian Age

Monday, April 03, 2017

Why Pakistan skipped IPU Assembly

It was predicted that Pakistan would stay away from participating at the ongoing 136th Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in capital Dhaka. Pakistan, on Friday last announced to boycott of the mega parliamentarian assembly, alleging a "malicious propaganda" by Bangladesh, and unfriendly attitude.

The last minute pull-out of 10-member delegation led by Pakistan national assembly speaker Ayaz Sadiq was due to participate in the IPU assembly in Dhaka. Further to slay the slain, Pakistan took the issue of Bangladesh observing "Genocide Day" on March 25 to memorialize genocide of three million people and sexual abuse of 400,000 women during the Liberation War in 1971.

Sadiq's statement was not a surprise Bangladesh government. He said the Pakistan national assembly members noted with disappointment the actions and "negative public statements" coming out of Bangladesh despite Pakistan's "restraint and overtures" to the country.

The bilateral relation between the two countries has been in roller-coaster since the independence of Bangladesh and surrender of Pakistan armed forces in eastern front in December 1971.

The boycott of the IPU conference is another sign of strain in Bangladesh-Pakistan ties. The relationship further plummeted when Pakistan has officially protested the sentencing and hanging of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for war crimes committed during the bloody war in 1971.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government strongly reacted to Pakistan's reactions in regard of the judicial verdicts, which her administration stated tantamount to meddling in internal affairs of Bangladesh and also asked Islamabad to apologize for atrocities committed by marauding Pakistan army during the Liberation War.

However, diplomatic relations between two countries enjoyed best of ties during the two military regimes of General Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) and General HM Ershad (1982-1990). The bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan had risen and shined during the regimes of Begum Khaleda Zia (1991-1996 and 2001-2005), when dreaded Pakistan spy agency ISI was given legitimacy for covert operation against India.

ISI operatives in a bid to destabilize the north-eastern states, had provided weapons, training and helped money laundering of funds to run the separatist groups, who were engaged in violent actions against the Indian authority. The Pakistan spy agency was also active in raising militant groups from among the Rohingya Muslims to wage war against Myanmar for a separate state.

Since Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009, her government was able to neutralize the ISI operations in Bangladesh and all the separatist leaders of Indian north-east were deported to India. Once the Pakistan's covert operations were blocked and regular seizure counterfeit Indian currency smuggled into India, Pakistan began tirade against Bangladesh.

Bangladesh also with other South Asian countries including India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan pulled out of the 19th SAARC Summit to be hosted by Pakistan in November 2016, citing incitement in terrorism in the region.

This episode further angered Islamabad and blamed Dhaka taking cue from New Delhi and adopts an anti-Pakistan posture, writes an editorial in a Pakistan newspaper published on April 1.

Speaker Ayaz Sadiq, quoted in an influential newspaper "Aaj News" expressed grief that "all such dedicated efforts, unfortunately, fell in vain and Pakistan was time and again targeted and maligned…. It was, therefore, decided, with a heavy heart, not to undertake a visit to Bangladesh at this time."

First published in The Asian Age, April 3, 2017

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), an award winning journalist and is Special Correspondent, The Asian Age

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

UN Refugee Agency urges fair deal for Rohingyas in Bangladesh


United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) seeks equal treatment for all Rohingyas in Bangladesh and help to provide basic aids to new arrivals.

Apparently the appeal was made amidst confusion created after fresh influx of refugees who fled violence in Myanmar are dubbed 'undocumented' and miss out on vital aid, while those arrived in Bangladesh are considered 'refugees'.

The new influx has highlighted the urgent need to verify the number and location of the new arrivals. Without this information, vulnerable refugees risk falling through the cracks while others could be receiving duplication of assistance, says a top UNHCR officials in Bangladesh.

The influx of refugees in the early 1990s, lives in two government-run camps serviced by UNHCR, and its partners the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the World Food Program (WFP) in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar, bordering troubled Rakhine State.

The 33,000 registered refugees in Kutupalong and Nayapara camps in Ukhia have access to basic services including food assistance, healthcare and education for children, but the registered refugees do not have any legal status in Bangladesh.

More than 70,000 Rohingya are believed to flee during a security operation between October 2016 and February 2017. The security operation by Myanmar Army has recently been postponed after international outcry, including the United Nations, European Union, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Bangladesh government has announced it will conduct a census of undocumented Rohingya living outside the two camps to include the new arrivals.

"We are advocating for a joint verification of the new arrivals with our partners as soon as possible," said Shinji Kubo, UNHCR's Representative in Bangladesh. "This exercise will help the government and humanitarian agencies to better target assistance to those who need it the most, be they new arrivals, refugees who came earlier or locals who host them."

A third category consists of an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 'undocumented' Rohingya who arrived in Bangladesh between the two influxes. They live in makeshift sites and local villages, and until recently had no access to humanitarian aid.

"The current situation is not sustainable," said  Shinji Kubo. "Regardless of when they came and where they live, these people have the same needs and deserve equal access to protection and assistance," he told UNHCR press.

Several thousand new arrivals are presently accommodated in the two official camps, pressuring on the capacity of existing refugees and the infrastructure. Many more new arrivals are living in existing makeshift sites or new ones that have sprouted spontaneously.

"In the long run, we hope that all Rohingyas in Bangladesh can be documented to ensure full respect for their rights," said UNHCR's Kubo. "Knowing the profile of this population will also help us to identify longer-term solutions for them."

Article first published in The Asian Age, March 22, 2017

Saleem Samad, is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), an award winning investigative journalist and is Special Correspondent for The Asian Age

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Defense pact between Bangladesh & India in front row, while Teesta water-sharing takes backstage


India eyes a comprehensive defence pact with Bangladesh, while Teesta water-sharing is off the radar during the official visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India's capital New Delhi in early April.

Bangladesh is nervous on the outcome of the India visit, which is expected to further take the bilateral relations to new heights, said a top official of the Ministry of Foreign Ministry on Monday. She is also slated to visit Ajmer to pay homage to Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.

Political hype on the crucial issue of twice postponed the Teesta water-sharing treaty has caused much embarrassment to the government and ruling political allies. For Hasina, inking another sensitive military pact will not be easy to keep afloat in rough weathers, observes former Bangladesh envoy to Delhi Ambassador Liaquat Ali Chowdhury.

The anti-Indian political lobby, both ruling Awami League's arch rivals Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami, is likely to make noise to the government's getting closer to India, "but Hasina is not afraid of the wolves", said Chowdhury.

Since Hasina returned to power in 2009, she walked extra miles in addressing India's concerns over north-east India's insurgency and connectivity. Nevertheless, India understands that a military pact with Bangladesh  would be beneficial for the two neighbors.

If the pact comes through, India will offer highest ever credit line for defence cooperation with other friendly counties. Delhi is also willing to commit up to 500 million USD in line of credit for military cooperation with Dhaka, writes Jayanth Jacob in Hindustan Times.

Earlier, India had not given line of credit for defence hardware purchases, a source told The Asian Age. On the other hand, the crucial parleys on the outlines of the defence pact is going on, which comprises training, sale of military hardware and military to military cooperation.

Hindustan Times confirms that the "discussions for a defence pact is progressing and yet to reach a final shape". Unfortunately, Delhi is unable to keep pace with Hasina in reciprocating her political desires from her largest neighbor.

The much-awaited Teesta water-sharing deal and two neighbors to share 54 rivers remains a far-cry. Negotiations on Teesta were on for the past 18 years, Chowdhury noted. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opined for water sharing of all 54 rivers during his maiden visit to Bangladesh two years ago.

The good offices of an elderly politician and President of India Pranab Mukerjee in Delhi are trying to break the ice to resolve the Teesta water sharing issue at a parley between Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been planned.

Bangladesh is confident that she will not return home with empty hands, said a Foreign Office official. The draft agreement prepared by Delhi in 2011 was not signed due to opposition from Mamata, the two sides agreed to share the river's water 50:50, the same as the 1996 Ganges (Padma) water-sharing pact.

First published in The Asian Age, March 21, 2017

Saleem Samad, is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), an award-winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He is Special Correspondent, The Asian Age
Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bangladesh hide and seek on presence of Islamic State militants


Bangladesh is embarrassed. So are the top officials of Interpol, security experts, academicians, police chiefs from the region attending the three-day long conference organized by Bangladesh Police and the Interpol in the capital.

Bangladesh Police top brass AKM Shahidul Hoque has denied the presence of Jihadist of Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in the country. "There is no presence of the Islamist terrorist outfit here," the inspector general of police maintained at impromptu press briefing on Monday morning.

"These are baseless propaganda. What we call militants are actually 'homegrown' who might have been embodied with IS philosophy and ideology. But they don't have any link with the IS," said Hoque. His reaction came in the wake of Prof Rohan Gunaratna, an international security expert, who affirmed on the presence of IS jihadist in Bangladesh and that the outfit carried out the Gulshan café attack on July 1.

What further embarrassed the government was the joint forces operation to disengage and neutralize the militants, release the hostages and regain control of the café, when his paper,  "Deradicalization of Militant: An Approach for Disengagement and Reintegration into Society,"

Government was enraged not only with his observation on presence of IS in Bangladesh, the military brass took the scholar's comments on delayed commando operation to regain the seized café, as an exception and interference into internal affairs.

Gunaratna said police should have immediately responded to the café attack and should not have lingered on for the commandos to join the operation. The conference seeks to build regional cooperation in curbing violent extremism and transnational crime.

In a typical IS  strategy, Gunaratna explained that the IS second phase was propaganda and the third phase was showdown. "The group that mounted the Holey Artisan attack is not the JMB. In fact, it is the IS," opined the expert.

But unfortunately, the Bangladeshi political leadership did not accept that the group that is operating is the IS, Gunaratna remarked.

Administration top officials, including Home Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and the inspector general of police have repeatedly said that there is no presence of ISIS in Bangladesh. Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina described any such claims as local and foreign conspiracies.

There could be various reasons why the government is determined to justify non-existence of jihadist or Islamic militants who are linked to Al Qaeda or Islamic State. Head of Singapore based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research Rohan Gunaratna, has claimed that terrorist network Islamic State has physical presence in Bangladesh.

Police chief Shahidul Hoque described Gunaratna as an academician, a professor of a university. In a virulent attack, Hoque observed that "he does not deal with any security issue. He has done his academic research on his own. But he does not have experience of the real issue of Bangladesh."

"What Mr Rohan said is his own statement. We don't endorse his statement," the IGP concluded. Born in Sri Lanka, Gunaratna interviewed terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia and other conflict zones, according to his brief biography presented at the conference.

The United States 9/11 Commission formed after the attack of Twin-Tower in New York invited Gunaratna to testify on the structure of al-Qaeda.

Gunaratna, who teaches security studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, is also a trainer for national security agencies, law enforcement authorities and military counter-terrorism units, said his bio distributed at the conference.

This article first appeared in The Asian Age, March 14, 2017

Saleem Samad, is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), an award winning investigative journalist and writes on current affairs