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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

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Jammu & Kashmir continues to face violations of human rights and free speech

Kashmiri journalists protest against alleged harassment by Jammu and Kashmir police - Outlook/Umer Asif


On the morning of August 5, 2019, the few that had access to dish TV watched in shock the proceedings of the Indian Parliament, which abrogated the special status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and stripped it of its limited autonomy.

The restive Kashmir Valley is already one of the most militarized zones in the world, where suspicion, distrust, and rumour galore brew among the 13 million residents.

“Working has been hell for journalists in Kashmir for the past year,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of the Asia-Pacific desk of Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

For J&K’s residents, the state became the centre of the world’s biggest news and information blackout, with all forms of communication -- internet, mobile data, TV, and fixed-line telephone -- suddenly suspended. This unprecedented internet shutdown began on the night of August 4, 2019, on the eve of the abrogation of Article 370 of the constitution of India, which granted special status to the state of J&K.

The South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) deplored Kashmir Valley’s one year under shutdown.

On August 11, a special committee set up by India’s Supreme Court recommended the restoration of 4G internet services in J&K, and access to high-speed internet on a “trial basis in a calibrated manner in specified limited areas to assess the impact on the security situation” after August 15.

However, the government in New Delhi and the J&K Union Territory administration (Delhi-appointed governor in Srinagar) told the court that while security concerns and threats from the region continued to remain high, 4G internet services would not be made available.

Further fuel to the fire is the J&K government’s new media policy for journalists. The policy announced in June has come under strong criticism, with political parties stating that it will give the government an upper hand to militate against journalists and muzzle free speech. “It’s an assault on press freedom,” writes Naseer Ganai in Outlook magazine.

The policy says that background checks of newspaper editors, publishers, and reporters will be carried out before the empanelment of newspapers, media organizations, and outlets. The policy gives power to the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) to examine the content of print, electronic, and other media for “fake news, plagiarism, and unethical or anti-national activities.”

On the other hand, Tapan Kumar Bose, an independent filmmaker and a human rights activist based in Delhi, expressed his deep concern over those detained during the crackdowns and search operations, and those picked up from highways, with promises to relatives of their safe return -- the releases rarely happen.

Since 1990, thousands of habeas corpus petitions have been filed before the J&K High Court. “There is a total breakdown of the law and order machinery. I shall not feel shy to say that this court has been made helpless by so-called law enforcement agencies. Nobody bothers to obey the order of the court,” grieves Tapan Bose.

Besides Kashmir valley, Punjab, Nagaland, Manipur, and Assam are the worst places in India where enforced disappearances are rampant and appalling. Usually, security forces are in denial about those in custody and do not even register complaints about missing persons.

The relatives of the detainees move from pillar to post in J&K after being refused help for year after year. The relatives are frustrated and tired, but angry; they eventually abandon the search for their loved ones, and one day their cries go silent.

Tapan Bose, who made a documentary with Zahir Raihan during the 1971 Liberation War, stated that India’s domestic law allows impunity for enforced disappearances in states such as Manipur, J&K, and Punjab.

He says there is denial of justice and the right to know the truth, but de jure immunity minimizes victims’ access to the right to justice. The perpetrators are rarely held accountable for their acts.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 14 September 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, September 07, 2020

After Bangladesh, next Balochistan

The Baloch population has become a minority in its own homeland


Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti or Nawab Bugti, a defiant Baloch nationalist, was murdered by the Pakistan Army on orders of Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf. Nawab Bugti, born in 1927, chieftain of the rebellious Bugti tribe, was the tallest Baloch leader who was the federal minister, governor, and chief minister of Balochistan.

Armed militants of the Marri and Bugti tribes, the fiercest tribes, waged armed struggles and politically challenged the forcible inclusion of the resource-rich province into Pakistan in March 1948.

Nawab Bugti was assassinated in a military raid ordered by General Musharraf. In a fierce battle with militants, Bugti’s fortified cave in Bhamboor hills fell after the helicopter gunship fired missiles into the cave. Bugti and 35 of his compatriots were martyred on August 26, 2006.

Musharraf was charged by an anti-terrorism court and then acquitted by a Pakistan court in Bugti’s assassination. His death sparked a countrywide anti-Pakistan protest by Baloch students and youths. Police had to quell ethnic riots in different cities and towns.

Balochistan is a region mostly populated by ethnic Balochs, as well as Pakhtuns or Pashtuns. It is the least populated region, and also the largest province of Pakistan. For decades, disgruntled Balochis have been protesting the forcible conversion of the Baloch population into a minority in their own homeland.

Since the death of Bugti, the restive Balochistan has experienced appalling human rights abuse. Anytime someone speaks up, protests, or writes on the rights abuses in Balochistan, the next day a dead body is dumped to warn of the consequences of challenging the state. Journalists who have published about Balochistan’s issues faced violent backlash from the state security apparatus.

The United Nations, International Court of Justice, and human rights organizations may not be able to fathom the plight of the families of the missing persons. Baloch mothers, sisters, widows, and their children are suffering from severe spiritual and mental distress.

Military regimes in Pakistan envisaged eradicating ethnic identities by changing provincial demographics and pursuing Islamization, or the substitution of a common Muslim identity for ethnic ones.

At the end of the 1970s, Balochistan became one of the two focal points of the dictator’s Islamization strategy (the other being the North-West Frontier Province, now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa).

The period between the end of the Bhutto regime and the military coup of Pervez Musharraf witnessed major developments in the Balochistan policy. Zia-ul-Haq used Islamization as a weapon against the insurgency in Balochistan, said Frederic Grare in his research publication Balochistan: The State Versus the Nation.

In 1970, when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was on a whirlwind tour for the election campaign in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, and Quetta -- he was given a tumultuous welcome, said Zahirul Islam Khan Panna.

Z I Khan Panna, a leading human rights lawyer, was a law student at Karachi University and was hand-picked by Bangabandhu to be his fixer for the election campaign in Pakistan.

Panna met Nawab Bugti in Karachi in June 1970, and handed over an English copy of the Six-Point program, as desired by Sheikh Mujib. Bugti was indeed a great admirer of Mujib and told his Baloch nationalist leaders that the Six-Point was a Bible to resolve the longstanding deprivation and political neglect of Balochistan.

Sher Mohammad Bugti, spokesperson of the Baloch Republican Party (BRP) spoke from Geneva, where he and BRP’s key leaders are living in exile. He lamented that the “Balochistan atrocity is worse than Bangladesh” in 1971, which was perpetrated by marauding Pakistan military.

Baloch nationalists are fighting two fronts, he said. One is Pakistan and the second is China. The Chinese Communist Party is singing the same tune as Pakistan on the Baloch issue on the mega Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Gwadar Port, which is located in Balochistan.

Bugti’s party senior leaders urged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to support their cause and help bifurcate Balochistan from the deep state hawks of Pakistan -- like Indira Gandhi helped Bangladesh in 1971.

Brahamdagh Bugti, the grandson of the slain Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti is presently the president of BRP. He rejected the possibility of holding any negotiations with Pakistan authorities, suggesting an internationally supervised referendum in Balochistan to bury the crisis once and for all.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 7 September 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