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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