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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

'Pandemic' word of the year 2020


The word ‘pandemic’ has become a part of all our lives now

The task to decide a single word or words in the year 2020, roiled by a public health crisis, an economic downturn, racial injustice, climate disaster, political division, and rampant disinformation -- was a challenge.

For the editors at, the choice was overwhelmingly focused. From our perspective as documenters of the English language, one word kept running through the profound and manifold ways our lives have been upended -- and our language so rapidly transformed -- in this unprecedented year.

The editors, based on online searches, concluded that the “2020 Word Of The Year” was “pandemic” and defined it as “a disease prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world.” The year 2020 was indeed painful. And yet, the loss of life and livelihood caused by Covid-19 pandemic defies definition.

Nearly 80 million confirmed cases, the pandemic has claimed over 1.75 million lives across the globe and is still rising to new peaks with the fresh outbreak dubbed as Covid-20.

No doubt the pandemic has severely dented social and economic life on a historic scale and scope, globally impacting every sector of society -- not to mention its emotional and psychological toll.

All other events for most of 2020, from the protests for racial justice to a heated US presidential election, were shaped by the pandemic. Despite the hardships, the pandemic also inspired the best of humanity: Resilience and resourcefulness in the face of struggle.

Languages evolve and adapt to new realities and circumstances. This deadly coronavirus outbreak has been reflected in our language, notably in the word pandemic itself. As the world was shaken from the pandemic, the searches for the word “pandemic” skyrocketed 13,575% on compared to 2019.

It appeared to have jumped out of history textbooks, and joined a cluster of other terms that users searched for in massive numbers, whether to learn an unfamiliar word used during a government briefing or to process the swirl of media headlines: Asymptomatic, CDC, coronavirus, furlough, nonessential, quarantine, and sanitizer, to name a few.

"The pandemic, despite causing havoc, agony, and trauma among millions worldwide, surprisingly has united the world of vocabulary into one global village, eagerly waiting for the vaccine and an eventual solution for the pandemic."

As the pandemic upended life in 2020, it also dramatically reshaped our language, requiring a whole new vocabulary for talking about our new reality.

Among all searches, the volume for pandemic sustained the highest levels on-site over the course of 2020, averaging a 1000% increase, month over month, relative to previous years. Because of its ubiquity as the defining context of 2020, it remained in the top 10% of all lookups for much of the year.

Glossary and vocabulary researchers, based on a prediction by epidemiologists to virologists agree that the pandemic defined in 2020 will dominate the years to come. It is a consequential word for a consequential year.

In the spring, the pandemic introduced a host of new and newly prominent words that, normally, only public health professionals knew and used.

Expanding the glossary for daily life included: Air bubble; antibody tests; antigen test; antimalarial drugs; asymptomatic; conspiracy theory; contact tracing; corona-cure; Covid-dedicated hospitals; Covid-19; Covidiot; debunk fake news; diagnostic tests; disinformation; distance learning; endemic; epidemic; epidemiologist; face masks; fake health remedies; fake health tips; flatten the curve; frontliner; hand sanitizer; handwashing; health facilities; healthcare; herd immunity; hydroxychloroquine; infodemic; isolation; lockdown; mutation; N95; novel coronavirus; PCR test; PPE; public health; quaranteam; quarantine; second wave; social distancing; strain; superspreader; take-out; vaccine; ventilator; virologist; virtual court; webinar; work remotely; Zoom; so on and so forth.

The resilience and resourcefulness people confronted the pandemic with also manifested itself in tremendous linguistic creativity. Throughout 2020, the editorial teams of various dictionaries have been tracking a growing body of so-called “corona coinages” that have given expression -- and have offered some relief from tragedy, some connection in isolation -- to the lived experience of a surreal year.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 29 December 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

"How long can Pakistan hold out in the east (Bangladesh)”


A conversation between Henry Kissinger and General Westmoreland about the birth of Bangladesh

Three days after a full-scale war between India and Pakistan in the eastern frontier and Bangladesh-India jointly against Pakistan in the eastern theatre, Henry Kissinger asked how long could the Pakistan troops hold in Bangladesh.

The meeting held in Washington DC, in the morning of December 6, 1971, was attended by senior officials of departments of state, defence, joint chief of staffs, CIA, USAID, and others.

US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, at the onset of the meeting asked Gen Westmoreland: “What is your military assessment? How long can Pakistan hold out in the east” (Bangladesh war zone)?

Gen Westmoreland candidly said up to three weeks. Once the Pakistan Army runs out of supplies, all the troops in East Pakistan [Bangladesh] will become hostage. The officials discussed whether there were any possibilities of Pakistan troop's evacuation. Gen Westmoreland responded in negative.

A senior official of the State Department asked Gen Westmoreland that assuming the Indians took over Bangladesh, how did he think it would happen?

Gen Westmoreland replied, “I think their primary thrust will be to cut off the seaport of Chittagong. This will virtually cut off any possibility of resupply. Then they will move to destroy the Pakistan regular forces, in cooperation with the Mukti Bahini. They will then be faced with the major job of restoring some order to the country. I think there will be a revenge massacre — possibly the greatest in the twentieth century.”

Kissinger asked whether the Indians would withdraw their army once the Pakistan forces were disarmed.

Gen Westmoreland replied that he thought they [Indian] would leave three or four divisions to work with the Mukti Bahini, and pull the remainder back to the West.

The officials expected that the Indians would pull out as quickly as they could. Once the Pakistan forces were disarmed, the Indians would have a friendly population. They could afford to move back to the border areas quickly.

Another official predicted that after the Indian Army had been in Bangladesh for two or three weeks, they would be accepted as a “Hindu army of occupation.”

Kissinger asked: “What will India do with Bangladesh? Will they see it as an independent state or have them negotiate with Islamabad?”

An official responded that India had already recognized Bangladesh as an independent country. Kissinger said then that there was no hope for Pakistan to negotiate with Bangladesh. The objective of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government was to force a surrender of the Pakistani troops in Bangladesh within 10 days.

In a telegram from New Delhi on December 6, US Ambassador Kenneth Barnard Keating reported that Indian Foreign Secretary Triloki Nath Kaul had expressed “disappointment, shock and surprise” that the United States had tabled the resolution it did in the UNSC.

On December 5, the Soviet representative on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) vetoed an eight-power draft resolution that called for a ceasefire and mutual withdrawal of forces, as well as intensified efforts to create the conditions necessary for the return of refugees to their homes.

The United States sriously wanted to stick with withdrawal and ceasefire, not a surrender of Pakistan troops. Kissinger assured the Pakistan regime that they were doing the best they could do diplomatically.

The resolution, which was tabled by Argentina, Belgium, Burundi, Italy, Japan, Nicaragua, Sierra-Leone, and Somalia, garnered a vote of 11 to 2 with 2 abstentions but was not adopted because of the negative vote of the Soviet Union (USSR). However, the UN Security Council accepted on December 6 that an impasse had been reached in its deliberations on the conflict in South Asia, and referred the issue to the General Assembly.

An estimated 93,000 Pakistan troops and civilians made an unconditional public surrender in Dhaka on December 16, 1971, which is observed as Victory Day each year.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 22 December 2020

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <>; Twitter @saleemsamad

Friday, December 18, 2020

Thaw in Bangladesh, Pakistan, relations?


The Pakistani press deliberately avoided the exchange between the Pakistan High Commissioner to Bangladesh Imran Ahmed Siddique and the Bangladesh PM.

There was lots of enthusiasm in the national press in Pakistan and among the Hawks in Islamabad, regarding the ‘quiet diplomacy’ of a rare meeting of Pakistan’s envoy with Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina.

The Hawks in Islamabad failed to realise why Hasina cleverly gave an appointment in December at her official residence Gonobhaban.

Bangladesh observes 16 December as ‘Victory Day’ when 93,000 marauding Pakistan armed forces and civilians surrendered at Dhaka in 1971, and Bangladesh was liberated.

The Pakistani press deliberately avoided the exchange between the Pakistan High Commissioner to Bangladesh Imran Ahmed Siddique and the Bangladesh PM.

Hasina during the parley maintaining social distancing in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, did not hesitate to state that “The incidents of 1971 can’t be forgotten. The pain will remain there forever,” says official news agency BSS.

She also referred to the volumes of a book titled “Secret Documents of Intelligence Branch on Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”, the prime minister said people can learn historical incidents that occurred during 1948-1971. The documents describe how Pakistan junta interpreted his political activities and intermittently put him behind bars years after years.

She said both the English and Urdu version of the book “Unfinished Memoirs” by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is one of the bestsellers in Pakistan. “It’s also well-read in Pakistan apart from other countries.”

When the diplomat raised that different bilateral and regional forums have remained inactive for some time and sought Dhaka’s initiative to reactivate the Foreign Office consultations (FCO) between the two countries, Hasina responded that as she believes in regional cooperation and there is no problem in the functioning of the forums.

Hasina, daughter of the architect of Bangladesh independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman reiterated Bangladesh’s foreign policy “friendship to all malice towards none”, and said she believes in continuing relationships with other countries too.

Well, the daily newspapers Dawn, Express Tribune, and other online newspapers published spoon-fed news tailored by the Press Information Department in Islamabad –what the citizens of Pakistan would love to hear.

Both Urdu and English press welcomed Hasina’s meeting with the Pakistan diplomat. Whereas she refused to meet the outgoing Indian envoy during the coronavirus lockdown.

The parley was interpreted as yet another sign suggesting warming up of nearly a decade old tensions between the two countries since Bangladesh bifurcated from Pakistan after a bloody war of independence in 1971.

Kamran Yousaf writes in the Express Tribune that the meeting of the Pakistani envoy with the Bangladeshi PM was the result of a ‘quiet diplomacy’.

The ice melted first in July when the Pakistani High Commissioner held a meeting with the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister during the coronavirus outbreak at its peak. The meeting that raised eyebrows in India, the wise-man writes.

A similar circus occurred when Imran Khan and his Bangladeshi counterpart spoke by phone.

What the press in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad censored was that Hasina, confidently told the Naya Pakistan leader Khan, that his country must express apology for war crimes committed by the Pakistan military during the brutal birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

The diplomatic relationship between the two countries was experiencing hiccups after Pakistan repeatedly condemned the verdicts of the International Crimes Tribunal against the war criminals who are Bangladesh born and possess the nationality of Bangladesh.

Hasina was furious after recurring outlandish statements by Islamabad on war crimes trials were issued. In 2016, Pakistan’s parliament passed a unanimous resolution condemning the “politically motivated” trials.

Bangladesh protested to Pakistan’s condemnation, and diplomatic relations began to deteriorate. The ties sank in a quagmire.

She decided to call back the Bangladesh High Commissioner from Islamabad and lower the diplomatic status of the mission.

Her anger could be understood when she wanted to close down the Bangladesh mission in Islamabad and severe diplomatic relations with Pakistan.

Hastily at the request of India, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, Hasina changed her mind and instead kept the status low by withdrawing High Commissioner, Deputy High Commissioner, and other senior diplomatic officials.

The final blow comes when an official announcement that no tourist visa would be issued except for official visits and business visas. Pakistan also reciprocated the visa regime no visa is issued from Dhaka. Thus the only air connectivity by PIA had to cancel the flights for lack of passengers.

Despite Pakistan’s academia in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, intellectuals, rights groups, and mainstream Urdu and English language media often write about Pakistan debacles in Bangladesh war theatre, war crimes trial, and advocates for a thaw in the estranged relationship between two countries. Still, some reactionary elements, mostly Islamist groups, remained negative about the Bangladesh war crimes trial.

The Pakistan media admits that the strained relationship occurred after Bangladesh went ahead with the trial of the war criminals in 2009.

However, the politicians and Islamist parties argue that Sheikh Hasina is settling scores against her opponents and Islamic evangelist and key leaders of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami.

The politicians do not say that political leaders of the ruling Awami League, Jatiya Party, and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) were also indicted and given maximum punishment.

Not surprised that the nationalist movements in Balochistan and Sind eagerly urge Bangladesh to raise the crime against humanity in their provinces at the international forum. Especially the enforced disappearances, torture, and atrocities against the Baloch and Sindhi nationals.

Recently the human rights abuses against Pashtun nationalists and human rights activists have sharply risen.

Well, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a dangerous country for religious minorities, especially the Ahmadiyya, Christian, Sikh, and worst are the Hindus. The Hindu teenage and minor girls are victims of abduction, forced conversion, and married to elderly polygamist husbands, happening mostly in Sindh.

Finally, Kamran Yousaf writes that the statement issued by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s Office said the incidents of 1971 cannot be forgotten and forgiven. This shows that the Bangladesh government is still adamant that Pakistan must formally apologise over the events of 1971.

To bury the past and thaw the relationship among two South Asian countries, Islamabad must seek a public apology for committing war crimes and thus open a new chapter with Bangladesh.

First published in news portal Shuddhashar, published from Norway on 18 December 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <>; Twitter @saleemsamad

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

An unsung martyr missing since 1971

Col Ziaur Rahman with wife Ferdousi Chowdhury and Shahreen Rahman Lubna (centre)


An unsung martyr missing since 1971Col AF Ziaur Rahman, principal of Sylhet Medical College was abducted by the Pakistan army and never was seen again.

Possibly thousands of unsung martyrs have not been properly documented. Their names are not mentioned in speeches of a politician, nor are they mentioned in textbooks, and not even documented in liberation war history.

Lieutenant Colonel Abul Fazal Ziaur Rahman, of Pakistan Army Medical Corps (AMC), is one unsung hero, missing since 1971.

Col Zia was posted as Principal and Superintendent of Sylhet Medical College (now Sylhet MAG Osmani Medical College) in 1968.

Despite being cautioned by his well-wishers and family, he ignored official protocol and wearing military uniform joined the countrywide anti-Ayub student protests in 1969. Incidentally, one of Ayub Khan's favorite playing card partners was a young army doctor Zia in Rawalpindi.

He was often visited by Col Osmani, senior Awami League leaders at his official residence in Sylhet for his outspoken support for independence from the shackles of the Pakistan junta.

Born in Araihazar Upazila, Narayanganj in 1926, and studied medicine at Campbell Medical College (now Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College), Kolkata. After graduation in 1947, he joined Pakistan Army Medical Corps in 1949.

He was visibly angered when General Yayha Khan, Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) and President of Pakistan on March 1, 1971, cancelled the maiden parliament session scheduled to be held in Dhaka.

The cancellation sparked the nationwide street protest. The Sylhet Medical College was overwhelmed with wounded protesters and treated for bullet wounds and other injuries. Col Zia was an experienced surgeon and took care of the patients at the Operation Theatre himself.

One day in early March, Col Zia responding to a phone call from Col Sharfaraz of Sylhet Regional Martial Law Administrator, barked at him and said "It is simple, I will not treat [your soldiers]. You are shooting our innocent civilians [Bangalee] right and left and you are asking for treatment?"

He argued: "Your soldiers are CMH entitled, so take them to CMH," according to a short biography by his wife Prof Ferdousi Chowdhury, published in Shadhinata Juddhei Army Medical Corps (2010).

In another round of heated argument erupted with the Punjabi officer visited the medical college the same day. Troops accompanying Sarfaraz urged order to shoot Col Zia when he was defending Banglaee nationalism and demanded that Pakistan troops should withdraw from his motherland.

From somewhere he got a small flag of independent Bangladesh on March 3 and while driving Sylhet city the flag fluttered in his official car. Another flag was hoisted at his residence.

His wife Prof Ferdousi, believes that the display of the flag on his car and residence had invited him trouble. Similarly, another AMC officer Shaheed Lt. Col. Hye dared to display the flag in his car and was brutally killed.

His home radio was seized and was unable to hear the historic public speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 7th March at Race Course Maidan. He heard the summary of the speech at the hospital.

He told his colleagues as well as the Pakistani soldiers that all directives have been given by Bangabandhu, now it's time to join the struggle for independence.

Five days after the "Operation Searchlight" crackdown by Pakistan troops to smash the rebellion, on 1 April, a fire-fight occurred at Punjab Regiment in Sylhet. An army vehicle dropped a grievously wounded Bangalee military officer and a doctor.

On April 9, Pakistan troops raided the hospital on information that officers who defected and joined Mukti Bahini were being treated and sheltered in the college.

The unwarranted death of his two colleagues made his blood boiling further heightened his anger and hatred towards the Pakistanis.

Col Zia was confined to his residential quarter and not allowed to buy essentials and daily groceries. His family along with his wife, their daughter, and son starved. The soldiers denied buying milk for his youngest son.

During his confinement, Col Zia often told his wife that "Bangabandhu can be compared with Mahatma Gandhi only."

They were rescued from confinement by a parent of a former student of Col Zia. After a few days, they felt that the shelter was not safe. They decided to return to the staff quarter of the medical college, where most of the residents have fled for safety. They broke open the door of a resident doctor and stayed from 7 April.

Shahreen Rahman Lubna, the only daughter of Col Zia was playing with dolls in front of the quarter. A Lieutenant arrived with few soldiers and asked the whereabouts of Col Zia.

She volunteered to take them upstairs where they were leaving as a refugee. On that day, Col Zia desired to eat 'bhuna-khichuri'. When Ferdousi was preparing his favourite menu, he went to take a shower.

The young officer said he has been asked to report to the military camp immediately. Zia was expecting this, so he quickly changed into a shirt and a pair of trousers. The 'khichuri' was lying on the dining table while he was escorted away.

Like thousands of victims of enforced disappearance by the Pakistani occupation force on 14 April, none have returned home.

At least 15 doctors and 122 healthcare staff of the Army Medical Corps were martyred. Ten members of AMC received gallantry recognition by the state.

A student's hostel at Osmani Medical College has been named after Shaheed Lt Col Zia, which heartens his family members.

Ferdousi Chowdhury retired as Head of Geography from Begum Badrunessa Government Women's College and also was a teacher of Geography at Eden Girls College. She died of old age complications in May 2017.

Lubna was five years old on a fateful day. Since then she never observed Pahela Baishak. The celebration of Bangla New Year's festivity does not arouse feelings in her life. She misses her father who loved her the most.

On that day she remains in solitude and silently weeps the whole day.

First published in The Asian Age, 16 December 2020

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Austerity, economic recovery, and the debt trap


Why developing nations such as Bangladesh must be especially wary of how they seek to recover from the Covid-19 fallout

Development economists and civil society organizations (CSOs) argue that austerity measures adopted by the governments of third-world countries are not a solution during the coronavirus crisis.

They raise questions about austerity, gradually imposed after the Covid-19 crisis due to the massive debt contract. Immediate suspension of debt payments and better still, cancellation of debt, must take priority.

Instead, they advise governments to opt for economic recovery. The economic recovery will only be possible from “debt relief” and “debt justice.”

Bangladesh and other developing countries have given special attention in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and engaged in servicing external debts to international financial institutions.

The governments are deliberately diverting funds from education, human development, and infrastructure development sectors, whereas the health and safety net programs are implemented under a shoe-string budget.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the pandemic has pushed another 32 million people in poor countries into abject poverty.

Another report by the International Finance Institute highlights the $272 trillion global debt, a new high, in the third quarter of 2020 and warns us about the “attack of the debt tsunami.”

There are issues in which countries while seeking assistance from international financial institutions, are often imposed conditionalities that have not necessarily been negotiated with borrower states. These conditionalities are even seen in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The government deliberately does not involve the citizens to participate in consultations, discussions, or negotiations. Such conditionalities increase the country's chances of falling into a “debt-trap.”

Ultimately, it is the people that have to foot the debt repayment after authorities impose additional taxes and levies to recover from the vicious cycle of debt.

According to standards of international law, international financial institutions should be held responsible for complicity in the imposition of economic reforms that violate human rights, which is well documented.

Governments and major multilateral institutions like the World Bank, the IMF, and regional development banks have used repayment of public debt to generalize policies that have damaged public health systems.

This has meant job cuts in the health sector, job instability, reduced numbers of hospital beds, closing down neighbourhood health services, increased medical costs both for care and medicines, under-investment in infrastructure and equipment, and privatization of various sections of the health sector along with public under-investment in research and development for treatment, which is to the advantage of big private pharmaceutical groups and companies.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, these policies had already led to an enormous loss of human lives, and all around the world, health personnel were organizing protests.

Neither the World Bank nor the IMF have cancelled any debts since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although they have made endless calculated declarations to give the impression that they are taking very strong measures. This is completely false.

Worse still, since March 2020, the IMF has extended the loan agreements that entail continuing with the structural measures enumerated above. As for the World Bank, since March 2020 it has received more in debt repayments from developing countries than it has paid out to finance either donations or loans.

Eminent development economist, Dr Atiur Rahman states that “We want to fight the coronavirus and, beyond that, improve the health and living conditions of populations, [for which] emergency measures must be taken.”

Immediate suspension of debt payments and cancellation of debt must take priority, suggests former Bangladesh Bank’s governor Dr Rahman.

The austerity measures do not contribute to economic recovery, but instead have negative consequences in terms of economic growth, debt ratios, and equality, and routinely result in a series of negative human rights impacts.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 8 December 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

A prisoner’s tale


Of fictitious cases, police brutality, and state-sanctioned intimidation

“Saleem Samad, a freelance reporter and local correspondent for the international press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontiers, was arrested earlier today (November 29, 2002) in connection with Channel 4,” writes The Guardian newspaper.

My arrest was made three days after British journalist Zaiba Malik and Italian cameraman Bruno Sorrentino who were commissioned by Channel 4 TV to produce a documentary on terrorism for its Unreported World, were also arrested along with their interpreter Priscilla Raj.

Journalist/film-maker Shahriar Kabir was also arrested under the sedition case. The rightist regime was enraged by his campaign for the trial of the war criminals of 1971.

The regime to harass critics also accused Advocate Rana Das Gupta (presently prosecutor of the International Crimes Tribunal) and former Dainik Janakantha’s Cox’s Bazar correspondent Tofael Ahmed.

During the repressive regime during 2002-2006 of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) coalition with Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, at least 80 journalists were arrested and tortured -- another 200 journalists were slapped with trumped-up charges.

Scores of journalists were brutally attacked and were hospitalized, mostly in the southern districts -- from Satkhira to Bhola. Many fled their district for their safety, either after being physically attacked or receiving death threats.

The infamous Hawa Bhaban was the mastermind of harassment and intimidation -- which led to numerous arrests, including war crimes historian Prof Muntassir Mamun, Enamul Hoque Chowdhury (present editor of the Daily Sun), and journalist Barun Bhaumik Nayan, among many others. Both the journalists were brutalized during interrogation to sign fictitious confessional statements.

In a shameful move, the pro-government journalist leaders of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ), and National Press Club refrained from protesting the arrests, torture, and intimidations of hundreds of journalists. Instead, the journalist leaders, spearheaded by Shaukat Mahmood, a journalist turned politician desired to “teach the journalists a lesson” with the blessing of Hawa Bhaban, the office of Tarique Rahman, and the rogue son of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

It felt as if a thunderbolt struck me when Mozzem Hossain, a journalist of BBC Bangla in Bush House, London told me that the foreign journalists, Priscilla Raj, and the driver of a rented vehicle were arrested under a fictitious sedition case.

I quickly gave my first reaction to both BBC Bangla, BBC World Service, and numerous international media. The daily newspapers and private news channels had been agog with the sensational news of the detention of foreign journalists.

The news also splashed in major global media, as the regime’s “Operation Clean Heart” was squarely blamed for extra-judicial deaths and enforced disappearances of hundreds of opposition members deemed a threat to the ruling party. Janakantha newspaper reported that the FIR filed with Motijheel Police Station had only four names -- foreign journalists, an interpreter, and the name of a driver. 

Next to the driver’s name was the handwritten name “alias Saleem Samad.” My name was blue-pencilled by the Home Affairs Ministry, by the hybrid journalist leaders. 

My defense lawyers, Barrister Amirul Islam and Barrister Tania Amir, explained that I was neither aged 28, nor a driver by profession, and my parent’s name and address do not match the one mentioned in the police report. 

On the fourth day, the home of my parents in Pallabi, where I also lived with my family, was thoroughly searched for 28 (RPT 28) hours. 

My family was on the run, as security agencies wanted to retrieve the spare hard-disk from my son Atisha Rahbar. My parents were locked downstairs, while every inch of the two-storied house was thoroughly searched. All the books and documents were carefully scanned. 

On the fifth day, in the wee hours of Friday during the month of Ramadan, I was picked up by detectives from a flat in Uttara belonging to a Crack Platoon veteran, my school-mate Ishtiaq Aziz Ulfat. 

I was brought to the Detective Branch office at Mintoo Road. A delinquent police officer Kohinoor Miah attacked me with a baton and, also brandishing his service pistol on my forehead, accused me of betraying the country and slandering the image of the state. Well, it was Khaleda’s regime that smeared the country.

After 55 days, on the order of the High Court, I was freed on January 18, 2003.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 1 December 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The depths of debt


Developing countries such as Bangladesh are struggling to balance fighting Covid-19 and keep up with their growing public debt

The global leaders have realized that the coronavirus crisis has jolted the world from a slumber, to understand that the crisis has unveiled the spectre of a larger global crisis.

The health care crisis and its cascading economic consequences are predicted to further plunge many countries in the developing world into an unprecedented crisis, further pushing millions of people into poverty and starvation.

These conditions shine a strong light on the continuing debt problem that stands in the way of people’s survival -- the fight against inequality, the realization of their human rights, sovereignty and the self-determination of people, economic, gender, and ecological justice, and the pursuit of a dignified life.

Hundreds of international, regional, and civil society organizations (CSOs) including Action Aid, CADTM International, Oxfam, Third World Network, joined by 120 Bangladesh NGOs led by Coast Trust, are demanding to suspend the realization of debt instalments for all public debts of developing countries combating the Covid-19 pandemic so that the ongoing coronavirus crisis is not aggravated.

They call upon world leaders, national governments, and financial institutions both public and private, to take urgent action in compliance with their obligations and responsibilities, and commit to unconditional cancellation of public external debt payments.

The CSOs demanded the suspension of all instalments of public debt for at least the financial year 2020-2021 so that countries can develop the capacity to combat the pandemic and overcome the impact of this disaster on its citizens’ health, food, and economic vulnerabilities.

An international statement issued during Global Week (October 10-17) of action for debt cancellation sought the decisive and full solution to the debt problem as part of the profound transformation of economic and financial systems that the present crises so urgently demand.

Meanwhile, the CSO network appealed to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Asian Development Bank (ADB), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and other bilateral, regional, and multilateral development financiers of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s economy is severely under stress due to the additional burden of pandemic management, while the country has a budget deficit of $17.65 billion in the current financial year.

The CSOs in Bangladesh are trying to urgently bring to global attention that the government of Bangladesh for the current financial year is being forced to allocate $6.20bn for servicing external debts to international financial institutions.

They are urging the multilateral, regional, and bilateral financial institutions to strictly follow the suggestions made by the World Bank and IMF and suspend the servicing of the public debts for 2020, so that the government can use its resources to fund initiatives to help the people in overcoming the Covid-19 challenge.

On the other hand, the G-20 governments announced the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) -- not a cancelation but merely an eight-month delay of up to $12bn worth of payments for public debts.

Much of this debt is illegitimate, the CSO network argues. The international creditors lend irresponsibly and unfairly, driven by predatory lending. The money is used to finance harmful projects and policies, failing to comply with legal and democratic requirements, is saddled with onerous and unjust terms, and incurred by private corporations but assumed by governments or incurred through public guarantees of private profits.

The conditional loans, including cuts in public services and social protection, and severe austerity programs, have also caused as great if not greater harm than debt servicing, especially on women and girls, indigenous people, and the most impoverished and vulnerable people and communities.

CSOs argue that the demand is much more than “debt relief,” but also for “debt justice.”

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 24 November 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Feeding the children in coronavirus pandemic

Children School Meal Policy/Photo: Latif Hossain


The coronavirus pandemic severely dents free meal programme to help mitigate hunger and malnutrition amongst the most vulnerable school children

In 240 government and BRAC-run educational institutions for children in Trishal, Mymensingh, thousands of school students enjoyed attending classes as the authorities provided a free midday meal.

The cooked food ingredients include rice, lentils, and mixed vegetables -- in total 178 grams which costs Tk10.50. The school students’ nutritional intake of calories was 545 kcal and protein 11.46 gm. The hot cooked meal is culture-specific and nutrition-rich. Dietary diversity is ensured through a change in the recipe to maintain appetite.

The midday meal in rural and urban schools mitigates short-term hunger -- for most students, it was the only full meal.

A study by key civil servants in Bangladesh known as MATT (Managing at Top Team) showed that almost 60% of children go to school hungry. 

In the third year, the school attendance in urban areas in BRAC-operated midday meal projects increased from 55% (2011) to 81% (2013), and in rural areas, attendance increased from 64% (2011) to 92% (2013).

Basanta Kumar, Kar chief of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) in Bangladesh pushed the idea of a midday meal in schools with the Bangladesh government in 2011 after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political pledge in Vision 2021 articulated a strong priority on primary school education and nutrition to ensure food security.

However, the Covid-19 crisis has contributed to a child rights crisis. For children, the costs of the pandemic were immediate.

In Bangladesh, like most developing countries, accessibility and affordability of food and nutrition become challenging, while keeping staple food distribution and local food markets is an uphill task for the governments amidst a lack of accountability and weak transparency.

The brunt of the suffering when it comes to access to adequate nutrition with depleting income sources falls on the children, adolescents, and women.

According to the Primary Education Census (2011), there are 20 million primary school-age children, of which 18.4 million children are enrolled in primary schools.

Various studies show that quality education in primary school is hindered by a high dropout rate caused by hunger and malnutrition and widespread micronutrient deficiencies.

The provision of nutritious food improves the cognitive and physical development of children, remarks Basanta. An estimated 20.9% have sub-clinical Vitamin-A deficiency, 19.1% are anaemic, and 40% are iodine deficient.

To ensure the sustainability of the free-midday meal in schools in Trishal, local government representatives, school committees, and participation of mothers of the students have ensured accountability of free mid-day meals in schools.

Unfortunately, after the departure of Basanta, the fruitful negotiations with development partners and international multilateral donors have become weak.

The pioneering program initiated by GAIN with development partners BRAC and Banchte Shekha emerged as a “game-changer.” Recently the government renewed commitment to replicate and scale up the school feeding model nation-wide in primary schools.

“It is critical to ensure food diversity and adequate nutrition, including key micronutrients and fortified staples,” Basanta said.

On Universal Children’s Day which is on November 20, the United Nations claims a definite impact has been found in investing in children. In response to the global nutrition crisis, school feeding programs can be adapted and scaled up to reach the most vulnerable children.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 17 November 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Myanmar polls a step closer to China

Will a Suu Kyi win help Myanmar stay in China’s good graces?


When the world was extremely preoccupied with the tense Trump-Biden American elections, Myanmar held its parliamentary polls on Sunday (November 8), which are expected to deliver a government with a strong popular mandate in Southeast Asia.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party (NLD) won a landslide in 2015 and established the first civilian government after 50 years of global isolation and ruthless military regime. Five years later, Suu Kyi remains popular, but 2020 has widened the image from 2015.

Suu Kyi has fallen from the grace of world leaders and is no longer a democracy icon, primarily because she mishandled the rogue military crackdown against the ethnic Rohingya Muslim population, which the United Nations said had “the hallmarks of genocide.”

More than a million Rohingya fled from Rakhine State into neighbouring Bangladesh in 2016 and 2017 after the military waged a campaign of persecution, which the United Nations dubbed as “textbook ethnic cleansing.”

The Rohingya’s citizenship rights were deliberately and permanently erased, restricting them to vote under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law. Even the Rohingya political parties were banned from contesting the elections.

In the face of global criticism, last year Suu Kyi defended her country’s military crackdown and denied genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, explaining that the claims were “incomplete and misleading.”

Many international observers fear that the November elections will not be free, fair, and credible, citing disenfranchisement and campaign restrictions imposed by the Union Election Commission (UEC).

Military chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s warnings to the UEC on electioneering directives soured relationships with the government. President U Win Myint stated that the military’s “remarks over the election were inciting instability and causing public concern.”

Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who has written extensively about Myanmar’s armed conflicts, politics, and ethnic crises for nearly 40 years, says it is unfortunate that elections have been suspended in several constituencies, primarily in ethnic areas where armed conflict rages against the Myanmar regime.

China wants Suu Kyi to win Myanmar’s polls. China’s interests will be better served by the Suu Kyi-led status quo than a return to military-dominated rule. Much has changed since the leaders in Beijing favoured Myanmar’s authoritarian military regime and were deeply suspicious of then opposition leader Suu Kyi.

The Chinese Communist Party has made no secret that they would prefer to see Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) win and are wary of the military top brass, whom they find increasingly difficult to influence and control.

Lintner also agrees that the Myanmar foreign policy will likely take its course after the poll -- towards a stronger and closer relationship with China. While the Tatmadaw sees it as their pledge to defend the nation’s sovereignty and seeks to lessen dependence on China, Suu Kyi turned to Beijing for the economic and controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) after her allies and admirers in the West distanced themselves from her over the Rohingya refugee crisis.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 10 November 2020

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan face-off over Kashmir

A world map minted in Saudi Arabia's banknote shows Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan not in Pakistan - Photo: Public Domain


The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has now fallen out of grace from Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic relations have gone cold after Islamabad attempted to ally with Turkey.

In recent times, the relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Turkey have dived further after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

The Kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (popularly known as MBS), squeezed Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to repay a $1 billion loan.

To further humiliate Pakistan, the Kingdom announced that the $1 billion, repaid by Pakistan, would be invested in Reliance Jio Fibre in India.

Embarrassed, Pakistan saved its face by repaying the debt with the help of China, and Khan’s electoral vision for “Naya Pakistan” is in shambles. 

After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck Article 370 from Jammu & Kashmir on August 5, 2019, which revoked its special status, Islamabad did not hesitate to criticize Riyadh over the contentious issue.

The worst is yet to come.

On October 24, Saudi Arabia released a 20 Riyal banknote to commemorate its presidency of organizing a G-20 summit on November 21-22. The world map displayed at the rear of this commemorative banknote deliberately scraped Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir from the map of Pakistan.

Riyadh was angered over Islamabad’s official publication of a new political map in August 2020, which has shown Kashmir annexed with Pakistan, leading Delhi to term it as “political absurdity.”

Riyadh believes Pakistan has no legitimacy over Gilgit-Baltistan and Jammu & Kashmir. The depiction of the map of Pakistan devoid of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan has adequately disgraced Pakistan in the international arena, particularly in the Muslim world. 

Well, the disputed Jammu & Kashmir have been taken out from the map of India too. The map depicts Kashmir Valley as an independent nation.

South Block in New Delhi immediately protested for the exclusion of Kashmir from India and demanded an explanation. Riyadh is yet to issue a statement. 

China, an all-weather friend of Pakistan, had been irked in the process and along with Pakistan has thrice dragged the Kashmir issue to the UN Security Council in the past year.

Pakistan miserably failed to draw the attention of the 57 members of Muslim nations -- the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) -- for a call for condemnation on scraping Kashmir autonomy.

During the China and India face-off over Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, Pakistan became desperate to form a new bloc with Turkey, Iran, Malaysia, China, and Russia, outside the traditional dictates of the United States. Malaysia silently backed out.

The Kingdom has given a clear signal to Islamabad that the KSA-India economic ties strengthened with a rejection of any financial aid to Pakistan is a new marker in international relations.

Observers understand that Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards Pakistan may also be “read” as “no confidence” against China.

Further pouring salt in the wounds, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran refused to allow Pakistan diplomatic missions to hold public events to observe the October 27 anniversary of Jammu & Kashmir’s accession to India as a 'Black Day'.

Plans to hold a public event inside Pakistan’s consulate in Riyadh were also blocked by the Kingdom.

Similarly, the Pakistan embassy in Tehran’s proposal to hold an event at Tehran University to observe Black Day was refused.

The change in stance adopted by two influential Islamic countries is a reflection of Pakistan’s equations in the Middle East as a fallout of its growing partnership with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seen to aspire for a leadership role in the Islamic world.

Analysts believe Imran Khan had bitten off more than he could chew. It’s a clear sign of Khan’s growing desperation for his failure to garner support over India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 3 November 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

Monday, October 19, 2020

America’s political motives further complicated Bangladesh’s Liberation War


Pakistan’s acceptance of Bangladesh’s independence during the height of the Liberation War in 1971 would have shed more bloodletting in the restive region.

The supposedly brokered ceasefire by China and America would have surely collapsed, as the Mukti Bahini, the East Bengal guerrillas, would not have obeyed the call.

By October, the Pakistani junta had deliberately transferred back to Pakistan the amphibian battle tanks, the newly-installed radar at Dhaka was dismantled, as were the squadron of fighter aircraft, which were brought from China.

For many in Karachi, where the military hardware was unloaded in the port, they understood that it was a matter of weeks. The eastern province was to become an independent country, but it was worried about thousands of soldiers and officers, civil administration, business entrepreneurs, and Pakistan civilians in the eastern province.

Henry Kissinger, the double-edge former US secretary of state, in an interview by Jeffrey Goldberg published in The Atlantic, said talks between America and China would have collapsed if the US had publicly condemned human rights violations and atrocities by the Pakistan army against the people of then East Pakistan.

Months before the violent crackdown Operation Searchlight by the Pakistan military, Pakistan emerged as the interlocutor most acceptable to Beijing and Washington, and exchanges were conducted from Islamabad.

Goldberg’s question was whether the opening to China was worth the sacrifices and deaths experienced in the India-Pakistan Bangladesh crisis, to which Kissinger retorted that Bangladesh demonstrates how this issue has been confused in our public debate. There was never a choice between suffering in Bangladesh and the opening to China.

He did not hesitate to state that Pakistan deployed extreme violence and gross human rights violations when Bangladesh was battling to achieve independence.

“The US diplomats witnessing the Bangladesh tragedy were ignorant of the opening to China. Their descriptions were heartfelt and valid, but we could not respond publicly,” he said.

By the time of the Bangladesh crisis in 1971 -- when Pakistan imposed martial law to crush the territory’s bid for independence -- Nixon felt he owed Pakistan’s military dictator, General Yahya Khan, a debt of gratitude for his government’s role in facilitating Kissinger’s secret trip to China, ignoring reports of Pakistan’s military atrocities against Bangladeshi civilians. 

The US actively supported Pakistan, to the extent of violating congressional restrictions on supplying arms to Pakistani troops.

“In November, the Pakistani president agreed with Nixon to grant independence the following March,” Kissinger said.

But the following December, “India, after having made a treaty including military provisions with the Soviet Union, and in order to relieve the strain of refugees, invaded East Pakistan,” he said, adding that the US had to navigate between Soviet pressures, Indian objectives, Chinese suspicions, and Pakistani nationalism.

“By March 1972 -- within less than a year of the commencement of the crisis  -- Bangladesh was independent; the India-Pakistan War ended, and the opening to China completed at a summit in Beijing in February 1972,” said Kissinger.

In his book World Order, Kissinger describes India as “a fulcrum of twenty first century order: An indispensable element, based on its geography, resources, and tradition of sophisticated leadership, in the strategic and ideological evolution of the regions and the concepts of order at whose intersection it stands.”

But in 1971, when Pakistan’s erstwhile eastern wing fought to become Bangladesh, Kissinger made a U-Turn and scorned India as “a Soviet stooge, supported with Soviet arms” over its support for Bangladesh independence.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 19 October 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

Monday, October 05, 2020

Pakistan needs new enemies

Pakistan army-soldiers. Photo: Reuters


Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government-backed Rawalpindi military hawks recently published an official country map that showed Kashmir Valley as part of Pakistan.

In fact, Pakistan has repeatedly given India the opportunity to present the restive Kashmir to the world as nothing more and nothing less than a Pakistan-backed insurgency. 

Pakistan’s policies have effectively undermined the struggle of the Kashmiris, even those living under Pakistan’s occupation.

When Islamic militias and terrorists engaged in an armed insurrection in Kashmir, it was dubbed as jihad -- holy war. 

When the Baloch people demonstrated through peaceful struggle for their basic rights, they were labelled as terrorists. What a contradictory interpretation of the regime in Islamabad!

All of Pakistan’s actions are an attempt to counter India’s move in August last year, which changed the status of Kashmir by bringing it under Delhi’s direct control under Article 370, scrapping Kashmir’s autonomy. Then they imposed a blackout of the internet and enforced a curfew.

Since then, India has been accused of using excessive force to maintain peace in the valley. 

Delhi obviously has a reason to be cautious, on account of Pakistan’s interference in Kashmir for the last seven decades. Since the Indo-Pakistan partition in 1947, the Pakistan army has unsuccessfully attempted to infiltrate Kashmir innumerable times.

After the birth of Pakistan, it violated the status quo agreement and invaded a part of the valley, with recruits of ferocious Pashtun tribes in the absence of sufficient infantry soldiers to push into Jammu and Kashmir.

This invasion started the current 70-year conflict between India and Pakistan, as India deployed troops to defend Kashmir against the marauding Pakistan military.

In September 1965, Pakistan soldiers crossed into Kashmir to foment a rebellion -- but failed. 

In the 1990s, Pakistan-backed jihadists, trained by the Rawalpindi General Headquarters (GHQ) to fight against the Soviet occupation in the 80s, were later mobilized as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed against the Indian-administered Kashmir.

In 1999, Pakistan made another failed attempt to capture the Kashmir territory through infiltration but ended up abandoning its own soldiers once the international media exposed Pakistan’s actions and Delhi countered the move with its military.

Since then, Pakistan has relied increasingly on backing militant networks that have terrorized not just the Kashmir Valley but also mainstream India. 

This includes Delhi’s parliament assault and the Mumbai terror attack in 2001 to recent terror attacks in Pulwama and Pathankot, carried out by Pakistan’s militants recruited from Kashmiris.

These aggressive tactics by Pakistan army GHQ have sealed India’s perception of the Kashmiris through the lens of its historic confrontation with Pakistan.

Meanwhile, a growing schism between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has unfolded recently as tensions threaten their strategic partnership.

Pakistan has pushed for action since August last year when India revoked Kashmir Valley’s special status, but had limited success. 

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation -- OIC -- has only held low-level meetings on the Kashmir crisis despite Islamabad’s crying calls.

Nevertheless, Imran Khan has denied rumours that Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia “soured” over its lack of support for Kashmir during the crisis.

There was also a recent statement by Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi concerning the establishment of an alternative Muslim platform to deal with the Kashmir issue -- in the face of Saudi opposition to raising it within the OIC.

Acting as another nail in the coffin, Maldives, after plugging Pakistan’s attempt to target India on “Islamophobia” at an OIC meet, has recently echoed New Delhi’s wishes in blocking a bid to conduct the failed 19th SAARC Summit in Pakistan, on the excuse that South Asia, like the rest of the world, is preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The rapidly shifting geopolitical realities, especially the current circumstances in South Asia, behoove Pakistan to treat the Kashmir issue as its top priority. 

Thankfully, Islamabad is doing that.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 5 October 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of the Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Monday, September 28, 2020

Imran Khan's tantrum, much ado about nothing

Pakistan PM Imran Khan at UNGA in 2019 - Photo AFP

Imran Khan did not impress many with his speech at the UN General Assembly


Anybody would have mistaken Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech at the UN General Assembly as the one he delivered in 2019. Retrofitted with pandemic era phrases, Khan spelled out what was effectively an abridged version of last year’s rant on India.

The video broadcast beamed from Islamabad was framed against a flag festooned backdrop and a painting of Muhammad Ali Jinnah on the wall behind him. Khan sat at a desk amidst a haze of green coloured props and rattled off a bucket list of macro-level grievances.

Khan’s tantrum speech last Friday was no dif.ferent from last year’s wide swipe at the world, talking about “corrupt elites,” tree planting schemes, Islamophobia, RSS, Modi, Jammu and Kashmir, and then Kashmir again.

Ranting that India “sponsors Islamophobia,” he called India’s Hindu-nationalist government a sponsor of hatred and prejudice against Islam while denouncing its moves to cement control of Muslim-majority Kashmir.

Reiterating the threats of climate change posed by global warming, Khan lamented that his country is severely affected by the climate crisis. As part of its efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change, Pakistan will plant 10 billion trees over the next three years.

Hours later, an Indian diplomat turned the mirror on Pakistan after Khan concluded his speech at the UN -- dripping with vitriol -- and recalled its record of genocide committed during the brutal birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

Indian UN Mission’s First Secretary Mijito Vinito, a Nagaland-born diplomat, articulated his statement in response to the acclaimed cricketer and said: “The only crowning glory that this country [Pakistan] has had to show to the world for the last 70 years is terrorism, ethnic cleansing, majoritarian fundamentalism, and clandestine nuclear trade.”

The young diplomat, in a strongly-worded reply to Pakistan’s call to outlaw those who incite hate and violence, said that it left others wondering whether Khan was referring to himself. There was a ripple of mild laughter among the diplomats in the hall, as well as embarrassment for the friends of Pakistan.

In July, Imran Khan referred to the dreaded Al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden as a “martyr” in Pakistan’s parliament. A leaked intelligence document surfaced in the media, which detailed that UN-listed terrorists had received pensions from state coffers.

Recently, Khan in a telephonic tête-à-tête with Sheikh Hasina urged her opinion about Article 370 revoking the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir. She quickly responded that the Kashmir issue is an “internal affair” of India. To stop Khan from dragging her into the discussion of the J&K issue again, she asked that Pakistan seek public apology for the war crimes committed in the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Well, most South Asian leaders are not in a mood to listen to Khan’s sugar-coated sermons for a peaceful solution to the J&K crisis.

Except few Muslim countries, no one seemed to lend their ears when he made frantic appeals that India must rescind Article 370 which granted special status to the state of J&K and end its military siege and other human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune 28 September 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

Monday, September 21, 2020

ULFA: A tale of militancy and impunity

Elusive ULFA-I leader Paresh Baruah rejects peace talks and hiding near Myanmar-China border

A timeline of the United Liberation Front of Assam’s activities in Bangladesh during the Khaleda Zia regime


There was uproar among the political and diplomatic circles in Bangladesh, India, as well as Britain after declassified documents said that a British diplomat in Dhaka had met with North East Indian secessionist leaders of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) 30 years ago.

The secret parley with British High Commissioner David Austin took place on October 2, 1990, with three top ULFA functionaries -- Anup Chetia (real name Golap Barua), Siddhartha Phukan (Sunil Nath), and Iqbal (Munin Nabis).

Shortly after receiving the secret memo, the British foreign office in London cautioned its envoy in Dhaka to snap contacts with the banned outfit, which would jeopardize their historical relationship with India.

The ULFA decided to meet the envoy because the British have century-old investments in the Assam tea gardens. So they thought it would be easier to twist the arm of the UK government to help pursue their radical policy.

The declassified documents said the British diplomat was shown photographs of the outfit’s training camp in Assam, among other images and leaflets, and finally promised a tour of its militant camps. One of the photos was of the ULFA military Commander-in-Chief Paresh Baruah at the China border with a Chinese army liaison officer. Baruah is still believed to be in China.

The diplomat found the China link of the ULFA “new and interesting.” Claims of Chinese help to northeast insurgency are not new.

The meeting was presumably arranged with the British High Commission by unnamed officials of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), just two months before the demise of General HM Ershad’s dictatorial regime.

The rogue intelligence officials were able to convince the democratically elected government of Khaleda Zia to lend political support to separatist groups in the seven-sisters in North-East India.

Her party advocated anti-Indian policy, which attracted several rightist parties, and most importantly, Islamist parties.

In mid-1991, with tacit blessings of the Pakistan spy agency ISI, the separatist leaders of Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Manipur opened their headquarters in Dhaka, while their foot soldiers set up camps in Bangladesh-India no-man’s-land, dotted in the northern and eastern frontiers.

In the border regions, for months and years, militants in uniform were seen buying groceries and essential commodities from village markets inside Bangladesh.

The covert operation, aided and abetted by ISI, functioned with impunity under the shadow of the Pakistan embassy in Gulshan. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who was also the defense minister, had full knowledge of the clandestine operation.

The ULFA and other militant groups had accounts in several private banks in Dhaka, Sylhet, and Chittagong. However, those bank accounts were frozen after Sheikh Hasina returned to power in January 2009.

The militant leaders lived in spacious apartments in Uttara, Shyamoli, Mohammadpur, and Shantinagar with their families. The unmarked shelters were guarded 24/7 by armed security with walkie-talkies provided by intelligence agencies.

The elusive ULFA military chief Paresh Baruah invested millions of US dollars in real estate, shipping, textile, power, and medical care in Bangladesh, according to a classified document of National Security Intelligence (NSI).

Not surprisingly, Paresh Baruah had direct contacts with Hawa Bhaban run by Tarique Rahman, former State Minister for Home Affairs Lutfozzaman Babar, and of course rogue intel officers, as well as ISI operatives in Dhaka.

India’s special operations unit, separately based in Guwahati, Assam and Agartala, Tripura, had made several attempts to capture the fugitive Paresh Baruah so that he could face justice in India.

ULFA’s founding member and general secretary Anup Chetia was detained by Bangladesh police on December 21, 1997, from his Shyamoli residence in Dhaka under the Foreigners Act and the Passports Act for illegally possessing foreign currencies and a satellite phone.

From his prison cell, Chetia thrice applied for political asylum in 2005, 2008, and 2011. His plea was rejected by authorities, possibly due to diplomatic pressure from New Delhi.

Sheikh Hasina, after becoming prime minister for the second time, decided not to allow foreign militants and terrorists to use Bangladesh territory against any neighbours.

Anup Chetia was released along with two other ULFA compatriots from Kashimpur High-Security Central Jail to be deported to India after 18 years.

Unfortunately, the two neighbours did not sign an extradition treaty. The North-East separatist leaders were handed over to India, including ULFA chairperson Arabinda Rajkhowa.

Presently, the deported ULFA leaders are smoking peace pipes in Delhi to end the four-decade-old militancy for a “sovereign” Assam in India.

First published on  Published in the Dhaka Tribune, 21 September 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad