Tuesday, May 29, 2007
I was in a café in Dhaka, sipping tea while waiting for a phone call from a foreign recruiting team, when the August 17, 2005, bomb blast shocked the entire nation. A session was arranged in a local hotel for the team to interview a few Bangladeshi job candidates for international markets. I received the desired call around 5:30 p.m. only to be informed of the team’s reluctance to visit Dhaka at current situation.
Immediately following the blast, the indices of Dhaka and Chittagong stock exchanges went down, respectively, by 1.17 and 0.89 percents. On the following day (August 18, 2005), the Daily Star reported that M.A. Salam, a vice president of BGMEA, a victim of the incidence, lost a prospective American buyer, who left Dhaka following the bomb blasts. He regretted saying that his three-month worth of correspondence fell flat only because of the terrorists incidence across the nation.
August 17 terrorist incidence may seem to have left a small dent on the overall economic activities. But, only when one does envisage the same incidence in a larger context and larger extent, as happened to the U.S. economy following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, then one would realize the graveness of impact of such incidence on overall economic activities of the country.
Now, just imagine, yourself being publicly flogged because you had your beard trimmed or being forced to wear veil and to stay home because you are a woman. That is exactly what Afghans had to go through under the Taliban’s rule. And, this is exactly what behaviour one may expect from a religious extremist party in the state power of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s image as a moderate Muslim country started to take beatings right after the October, 2001, election victory of two extremist outfits, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Shashotantrik Andolon, under four-party platform. Subsequent violence against the Hindu community, unleashed by the BNP-led four-party alliance, simply relegated Bangladesh as the new hotbed of radicalism. No one has ever been convicted of such heinous crime against humanity. Besides, the leaders of the alliance government kept denying their involvement in the atrocities and termed news of the severity of the violence as exaggerated. Worst of all, some Bangladeshi media and intellectuals shrugged off the reported intensity of the post-election violence as being external attempt to tarnish Bangladeshi image abroad. All these denials did nothing to assuage the pains of the victims of violence but to strengthen the moral standing of the extremists.
Since 1976, religious extremism has grown stronger under every regime in Bangladesh. They have always seemed to have been attractive choices as coalition partners for both the major parties of Bangladesh.
Why do political parties form coalition with the extremists? They form coalition only to stay ahead in the political power game. Indeed, in a competitive electoral process, selling out to the radical Islamic parties seems to make good business sense. Such alliance may make good business sense to political parties, but its undue consequences (social, economic and political) to the country is enormous.
Between September 2001 and May 2006, frequent bombing campaigns across the country left 113 civilians dead and 1458 injured. The alleged leaders of the August 17, 2005 bombing campaign are executed. But, hundred of the foot soldiers who carried out the orders of their leaders still remain at large. The most recent bombing incidence, carried out on May 1, 2007, indicates how determined, organized and effective these perpetrators are in executing further attacks. Unless the motives behind extremism unearthed, architects apprehended and brought to justice, all efforts to destroy militancy will constantly hit the snag.
To my best understanding, Islam, or any other religion, prohibits violence against innocent civilians. Religious extremists are doing entirely the opposite, invoking Islam to justify violence against innocent civilians only to capture state power.
What are the consequences of the rise of religious extremists to state power? Once in power, a theocratic regime restricts or even denies the rights of individuals, specially, those of religious minority and women. They discard democracy and capitalism as being godless materialism. (a quote from an article titled “Jamaat-e-Islami's views on Defence of Bangladesh” by Jamaat’s Late Abbas Ali Khan, former Naib-e-Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami that “Muslims who form the overwhelming majority will not tolerate secularism, socialism, capitalism or godless materialism” indicates how a theocratic state would not hesitate to ditch development process based on scientific, economic and social theories.)
The restriction on individual rights severely undermines incentives to works and wealth accumulation. Denying women’s right to participate in the labour force increases the burden of the population. Abandoning incentive based production process, which relies on competitive process and profit motive, restricts the flow of foreign investments. Resources are relocated from modern education sector to Madrassa education. Such relocation decreases the future supply of human capital. Intolerance and violence against religious minority limit access of the Bangladeshi citizens to the foreign countries, as evident from the drop in the number of Bangladeshi students pursuing higher studies in the United States following the event of September 2001 (decrease to 2758 in 2004-05 from 3845 in 2000).
May be it is difficult for a radical political party to capture political power through election. But, it can quickly put itself to the political power either simply by exploiting people’s frustration about the failure of a secular government or through a campaign of terror. In Iran and Afghanistan, people sacrificed liberty and welcomed theocracy only to get rid of existing dysfunctional, corrupt and oppressive secular regimes. But, once placed in the helm of power, theocratic regimes did everything, more systematically and ruthlessly, to wipe out the last sign of liberty and free choice. Apparently, the costs in terms of suppression, economic hardship and backwardness the Afghans and the Iranians had had to pay for welcoming Taliban and Mullahs into power far outweighed the costs they would have had to pay under dysfunctional democracies or even under secular autocrats.
The people of Bangladesh must take lesson from the history and safeguard their future and interests from tyranny and confiscation of liberty, specially, those by religious extremism. #
ABM Nasir teaches economics at North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina, U.S.A. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
North Carolina, May 23, 2007
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Behind Lt Gen Moeen U. Ahmed's quiet anonymity lies steely resolve to put Bangladesh back on track
THE Importance of being Lt Gen Moeen U. Ahmed.
He's the man behind the caretaker government in Bangladesh. The emergency was imposed on his directions.
- Was unknown even in his country. Keeps away from the limelight, is a devoted family man, loves to play golf.
- Became army chief in June 2005. Commissioned in 1975.
- Important assignments: Commanded infantry brigades, served with UN forces in Rwanda, was military advisor in the Bangladesh high commission in Islamabad.
- Did courses in Harvard University and the Centre for Security Studies, Hawaii.
- His agenda: Stamp out corruption, introduce electoral reforms, check Islamists, accord due recognition to national leaders like Mujibur Rahman
- Seized luxury cars. They are to be auctioned for raising money to build a hospital for the poor.
When Bangladesh president Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency and appointed Fakhruddin Ahmed to head the caretaker government in January, his seemingly precipitous actions kicked up a swirl of speculations. Was the military scripting the cataclysmic changes? Or was the upheaval even a prelude to direct army rule? Bangladeshis pondered over these questions, expressed their views in whispers.
Weeks later, on February 8, that speculative swirl evanesced because of the speech Bangladesh army chief Lt Gen Moeen U. Ahmed delivered at the Bandarban cantonment in the southeastern hills. He confirmed the army's support to the caretaker government. But, he also added, "the army has no intention to take over. We are not even running the government. But we would like to see this government succeed as we want to put the country on the right track through concerted efforts of all".
The general's speech was telecast on most TV channels, providing people a glimpse of the man whose hand now rocks the political cradle of Bangladesh, the swish of whose baton conducts the symphony of tunes emanating from the caretaker government—about eradicating corruption, introducing electoral reforms, punishing those who have looted public money or indulged in terrorism. The immense popular interest in the telecast was as much testimony to the power he wields as to the anonymity he has courted in the nearly two years he has spent as army chief.
To this post he was appointed on June 15, 2005, by ex-premier Begum Khaleda Zia. In a delicious irony, reminiscent of the dethroning of Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif by his appointee Gen Pervez Musharraf, Khaleda, to her horror, found Lt Gen Ahmed nixing her plans of conducting elections geared to favouring her party and sabotaging the chances of her rival, Sheikh Hasina. The general's taciturn nature was perhaps why politicians hadn't realised that his patience had run out with the two grand ladies whose perennial squabbles had pushed Bangladesh to the brink of a political precipice.
Perhaps his intervention was prompted by his sense of history, witness as he had been to the political turmoil in the early years of Bangladesh's birth, a period that coincided with his graduating from the Bangladesh Military Academy. He passed out in 1975, the year in which Bangladesh saw its founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman killed in a coup. Surely, there were non-violent methods of effecting a change: over three decades later, Lt Gen Ahmed showed how!
Always rated as a bright officer, his prestigious assignments have included commanding two infantry brigades and heading the School of Infantry and Tactics. Earlier, he was among the young army officers handpicked for taking security-related courses in prestigious foreign universities.This saw him spend time at Harvard University, Boston, and the Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii, as well as doing a course in intelligence in London. He was felicitated with the "US Force's commendation" because of his contribution in Op Sea Angles that the United States conducted during the devastating cyclone of 1991. Apart from serving with the United Nations forces in Rwanda, Lt Gen Ahmed's other significant duty abroad was a stint as military advisor in the Bangladesh high commission in Islamabad.
Beyond these biographical details, what is known about him is that his son studies in the US, his daughter is married, and that he loves to wield the golf club. For an insight into him, analysts have been poring through his speech delivered at Bandarban and another two in March and early April. Since then he has been content watching from the sidelines the caretaker government adhere to the broad framework set out. The contours of this framework have been defined by his deep disgust of politicians. "Our politicians do not understand anything beyond their self-interest," Lt Gen Ahmed declared at Bandarban.
There he outlined plans to stamp out corruption. "We need a heavy crane to put the train back on the track—and the strength of the people is the crane," the general said metaphorically. He cited an example of the systemic rot—disputes over who should pocket the "10 per cent kickbacks" prevented the last government from implementing a $200 million machine-readable passport project. He wondered aloud about the source of wealth of those who cruise the streets of Dhaka in BMWs, Mercedes Benzes and Fords. "This is our farmers' money," he said. A fleet of luxury cars has been seized since then, earmarked for auction to raise money for a hospital for the poor. The general said, "The time has now come to stop the politicians capitalising on money. The nation needs a competent political leadership so that Bangladesh could achieve development and progress like Malaysia and Singapore."
The drive against the entrenched venality in public affairs is being led by Maj Gen Masud Uddin Chowdhury, who is the chief of the National Coordination Committee on Combating Corruption and Crime and considered Lt Gen Ahmed's pillar of strength. To journalists, Maj Gen Masud recently said about his hunt for the corrupt, "There's no consideration of who they are. Those who appeared untouchable once are already apprehended." This was a reference to the arrest of Khaleda's son, Tarique Rahman, and the recent verdict of a special court against her political secretary, Harris Chowdhury, for failing to submit his wealth statement. Their names figured on the list of 50 corrupt suspects that the committee made public for the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), headed by Lt Gen (retd) Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, to examine. The ACC is now expected to press ahead with the second list of 50 corrupt suspects.
Fighting the menace of corruption isn't the only thing that is consuming Lt Gen Ahmed's energy; he's as much concerned about employing history to unite a society fractured along political lines. In a speech to freedom fighters on March 27, the general said, "They (politicians) have even failed to give due recognition to the national leaders. Think about it, we haven't even given recognition to the father of the nation (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman)." His remark was a subtle condemnation of Khaleda's policy of rewriting history for effacing Mujib from textbooks. This prompted The Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam to applaud the general and urge the caretaker government to "bury our murdered history forever and give our leaders their due place".
Perhaps nothing was more telling politically than the keynote paper the general presented at a regional conference of the International Political Science Association on April 2.He said Bangladesh needed its own brand of democracy that recognised its own social, historical and cultural conditions with religion as one of the several components of its national identity. He defined "own brand of democracy" as a "balanced government" where power was not vested in one family or dynasty, a prescription which could consign Khaleda and Hasina into political oblivion longer than what they may presently envisage. #
Outlook Magazine, India, Jun 04, 2007
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Head of state: Iajuddin Ahmed
Head of government: Iajuddin Ahmed (replaced Begum Khaleda Zia in October)
Death penalty: Retentionist
International Criminal Court: Signed
In Bangladesh, politically motivated violence marred the run-up to delayed elections.
Escalating tension between the ruling coalition parties and the opposition alliance led to several violent clashes leaving scores of people dead and hundreds more injured.
In waves of mass protests, opposition parties led by the Awami League called for the resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner, claiming that he was a supporter of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
They objected to the composition of the Election Commission and declared the compilation of the voters list to be biased and flawed. The government relinquished office in late October as scheduled. Following mass violent clashes between the outgoing ruling party members and their opposition, the designated Chief Adviser for the caretaker government turned down the post. President Iajuddin Ahmed appointed himself as the Chief Adviser amid unresolved controversy that his decision was in breach of the Constitution.
There were waves of strikes and mass demonstrations by garment factory workers, farmers and primary school teachers seeking improved
Cycle of violence and abuses
Bomb blasts occurred but apparently on a much lower scale than in previous years. Targets were mainly opposition party members and court premises.
On 31 October, a bomb attack took place in Rajshahi aimed at several opposition parties, including Gono Forum. They claimed it was carried out by the Bangladesh Islamichatra Shibir cadres, the youth wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. On 15 November, eight people were reportedly wounded when a series of small bombs exploded near the offices of the Awami League. No one was known to have been brought to justice.
By the end of the year no one had been brought to justice for the August 2004 grenade attacks against the Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. Electoral violence Scores of people died in clashes between the ruling and opposition parties in the run-up to the general elections. No one was known to have been brought to justice.
According to the human rights group Odhikar, at least 50 people were killed and more than 250 injured between 27 October and 5 November in violence that erupted between the two main parties over opposition demands which included the resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner.
Police repeatedly attacked opposition rallies, targeted leading activists and subjected them to severe beatings. Senior Awami League leader Saber Hossain Chowdhury suffered head injuries when he was severely beaten on 6 September by more than 12 police officers.
Asaduzzaman Noor, an opposition member of parliament, was beaten by police on 12 September and taken to hospital with severe back injuries. None of the police officers involved was brought to justice.
Police continued to use excessive force including live ammunition against demonstrators, causing dozens of deaths and injuries to hundreds more.
At least 17 people were killed in protests relating to electricity shortages in the northern town of Kansat in April after police fired live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas to dispel the crowds. No independent investigation was initiated into the killings.
At least five people were killed and more than 100 injured in Phulbari on 26 August when police and the paramilitary force Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) fired live ammunition into a crowd protesting against the establishment of an open-pit coalmine by the British firm Asia Energy Corporation. The government eventually agreed to some of their demands, giving assurances that no one would be forcibly evicted or lose their livelihoods because of the mine.
Mass arbitrary arrests
Thousands of people were arrested ahead of planned rallies by opposition parties, and thousands more were detained on suspicion of involvement in criminal activity. The families of detainees were not informed of their arrest and were forced to search for them in police stations. Many were held without charge or trial for weeks while others were released on bail after a few days.
Violence against women
Reports of women beaten to death or strangled for not meeting their husbands’ dowry demands continued. Women were subjected to acid attacks. Domestic workers were ill-treated or killed if they failed to work excessive hours.
According to reports compiled by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, at least 169 female domestic workers were killed between 2000 and 2005 in Dhaka alone. Another 122 were critically injured and 52 were raped. A significant proportion of the victims were reportedly children.
At least 130 people were sentenced to death and one man was executed. AI country reports/visits
• Bangladesh: Briefing to political parties for a human rights agenda (AI Index: ASA 13/012/2006)
• Bangladesh: Handover to caretaker government marked by violence (AI Index: ASA 13/014/2006)
I’M in two minds, facing a dilemma. I hold myself as one of democracies most vivacious supporters, but I’m also becoming a reluctant pragmatist. I have never endorsed the Truman or the Kirkpatrick doctrines of foreign policy, which proposed that the US should support authoritarian dictatorships which would help contain radical ideologies to the detriment of democracy and human rights, but I am beginning to understand and sympathise with the logic behind them.
I haven’t forgotten the role of the US in the assassination of Salvador Allende and the overthrow of his democratically elected government in Chile or countless other programmes to destabilise left leaning movements and parties in the ‘Third World’ for the sake of stopping perceived Soviet influence. If Gen Augusto Pinochet hadn’t mercilessly rounded up socialist activists by using death squads that executed unlawful death warrants, maybe I could have begun to stomach the policies attached to Operation Condor, a controversial programme to counter communism in Latin America. Well to be honest I doubt it, because with a democratically elected government in power I would have been reluctant, but then again how would I feel if the Muslim Brotherhood made further electoral gains in the Middle East?
The current ideology now being countered is radical Islamism and I fear the blueprint for containing this menace will be modelled on Operation Condor, especially as the neoconservatives, the war-mongering yet idealist defenders of democracy have been mainly dethroned and discounted for their view that democracy is universal and should be aggressively pursued. My democratic idealism has been blunted by harsh realities.
The Iraq war was become a major folly for neo-conservatism and democracy building and I fear it will quickly fall to the more merciless and pragmatic strategists-who won’t mind a civil war between the Sunni and Shia’s as it will keep jihadi fighters focussed on fighting between themselves rather than attacking the US and its allies. Seymour Hersh recently wrote in his article “The Redirection” published in The New Yorker magazine that elements of the US government, mainly from the National Security Council, was covertly supporting the Sunni-Islamist militant group Jundallah to attack Iranian interests.
As we hear discussions and read editorials about the benefits of pragmatic foreign policies by retired and serving diplomats who often appear gloating at the Iraqi misadventure, we miss the major theme of pragmatism- unabashed self interest. In un-coded language it simply reads “We don’t care if you don’t have democracy or human rights as long as our countries economies and security are not effected- go whine about it to Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch”
Bangladesh is currently being ruled by a military backed administration- its implementation of a corruption drive on the political and business leaders have been widely received by the international community as a positive development. The fear of the military returning to centre stage for a prolonged period has left the country quietly simmering, a welcome relief as many thought the country was ready to boil over during the run-up to the abandoned January ‘07 elections.
Military leaders have made statements which have alarmed human rights and democracy supporters. Lt Gen. Moeen Uddin Ahmed, Bangladesh Army’s Chief of Staff and de-facto leader recently said "We do not want to go back to an elective democracy where corruption becomes all pervasive, governance suffers in terms of insecurity and violation of rights, and where political criminalisation threatens the very survival and integrity of the state". A curious statement that has left observers wondering how the administration sees itself evolving in the future, especially when electoral reform and scheduling has been on most peoples agendas. A worrying sign!
The proposed plan for “minus two” which threatened to keep Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, two of the countries most powerful political leaders in exile also raised concerns by the international community. It is true that the leaders aren’t the best of friends and their relationship has polarised parts of country but Bangladesh can control this if its civic society and infrastructure is reinforced and can rise above party politics and influence. Anti-corruption campaigns are a priority, but it will take a decade or more to have any sort of real effect. The status-quo cannot continue for there to be any meaningful reform. The judicial system must be strengthened and be the primary vehicle for the campaigns, but they must not be allowed to turn into witch-hunts to silence and defame politicians.
Military governments in the developing world are favoured by realists, so I think I can safely say that democratic reform in the Middle East and South Asia will be on hold depending on if countries and their electorates are Sharia friendly or not. Bangladesh is not a Sharia friendly country so why should the populous be made to wait any longer? The violence that marred the aborted elections was threatening to turn the uneven democracy into anarchy. The military did save the country from a potential civil or party war- its role as saviours of ‘democracy ‘should be rightly applauded. It has helped to salvage the country’s economy and reputation. However the international community must put pressure on the Bangladeshi authorities to return the country back into the hands of its people. Transferring power back in the hands of the politicians who are craving for reform and who nurture secularism and democracy is the best tonic to anarchy, sectarianism and creeping totalitarianism. Bangladesh is a fragile country that needs slow gradual reform not “shock and awe”.
Bangladesh will not always be a model for stability, but if the military takes a backseat and vows to keeps its hands off the controls, it could help to implement a plan which will help Bangladesh to live up to its potential. The military must take a role in helping to foster better relations with foreign and domestic partners, but it must acknowledge that reforms must be in partnership with civil society not forced.
Politicians must also acknowledge that with the threat of radical Islamists increasingly looking to target the country with devastating attacks they must look to the military rather than law enforcement groups such as the controversial Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) to provide security. Bangladesh and democracy must not fail because of threats from a minority- the majority have shown they support humanitarian values and it is time for the current administration to let the people start to reform their own system of governance. The struggles have always and will be persistent, but the crisis is definitely over. #
Chris Blackburn is based in London and specialises on Islamic terrorism & Jihad. He is director of the Foundation for Democracy and Global Pluralism www.givethemlight.org
Monday, May 21, 2007
The headquarters of Al-Markazul Islami, an Islamic organization in Bangladesh, is a single tower whose frosted green windows rise several stories above the coconut trees and rooftops of Muhammadpur, a neighborhood in central Dhaka. Below, in the streets of this capital city of seven million, bicycle rickshaws with handlebar tassels, tin wheel covers, and carriages painted with faces of Bengali film stars ding-ding-ding along. Car, dump-truck, and bus horns blast four- and five-note jingles, and ambulance sirens wail. But none of the commotion reaches Mufti Shahidul Islam, the founder and director of Al-Markazul Islami, through the thick windows of his fifth-story office.
Al-Markazul Islami provides free healthcare and ambulance services. Many Bangladeshi journalists, analysts, and politicians think it is just a cover, and that Shahidul’s real business is jihad. “Mufti Shahidul is a very dangerous man,” the owner of my
Before I left my home in
“Assalaamu alaikum,” peace be unto you, he said as I opened the door. Shahidul is in his 40s. His face is framed by a scraggly, henna-died beard, and his forehead boasts a puffy, nickel-sized mehrab, a bruise that pious Muslims acquire from intense and regular prayer. He wore a white dishdasha and a diamond wristwatch. We exchanged greetings and made small talk in Urdu. Shahidul wore a wide, comic-book grin the whole time.
Local newspapers describe Shahidul as a former mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union in
Last December, Shahidul sparked a nationwide furor and reinvigorated a long-standing debate in
The Western media had been predicting similar things for years. In January The New Republic suggested that, “Left unchecked,
But the prospects for
For the most part, Islamic militancy or anti-American sentiment is not what draws support to politicians like Shahidul. While voters in
Three days after our meeting, I went to Itna, a village near Narail, where I met a teacher, Rajib Asmad, at a local girls’ school. “Mufti Shahidul Islam has helped a lot of poor people—Muslims and Hindus,” Asmad said. “He’s not only built mosques. He also drilled a lot of tube wells and distributed a lot of money. So everyone will vote for him again.” A local journalist later told me that Shahidul has funded at least 40 mosques, 13 madrasas, and 350 wells. Of course, this phenomenon, where Islamist parties gain support by providing basic services, is not specific to
“Do local people support his vision of an Islamic state?” I asked.
“Most people don’t understand what he really wants,” Asmad said. “They think, ‘Mufti gave us so much money.’ ”
Tagore composed both poems during the first partition of
From early on, the founders of
Decades of economic and cultural neglect took their toll on the Bengali masses. Between 1965 and 1970, the West Wing of Pakistan was allotted a budget of 52 billion rupees (about $865 million), while the East Wing, despite its larger population, received 21 billion. Then, in the 1970 parliamentary elections, Bengalis voted almost unanimously in support of the Awami League, which, because of the Bengalis’ numerical advantage, gained an overall majority in the national assembly. Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the head of the party, should have been named prime minister, but the leaders in the West Wing delayed the opening session. On March 25, 1971, Bengali leaders declared their independence and the Bangladesh Liberation War began. The Pakistani Army sent soldiers into the streets to crush the Bengali nationalists, an effort code-named Operation Searchlight.
Shahriar Kabir was one of hundreds of thousands of mukhti bahini, Bengali nationalists who took up arms. “It was total guerrilla warfare,” he told me. Today, Kabir is a squat man in his late fifties with a comb-over and a hand-broom mustache. On the night I visited him in his Dhaka home, Nag Champa, a type of incense from
During the Liberation War the mukhti bahini faced volunteer brigades of Bangladeshi Islamists who were collaborating with the more than 100,000 Pakistani army troops stationed in the East Wing. The brigades, known as razakars, came from Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist political party formed in 1941. “They were a killing squad, like the Gestapo in Nazi Germany,” Kabir said. The razakars lurked in places where uniformed soldiers could never go. They targeted intellectuals, whom they considered, according to Kabir, “the root of all evil for promoting the ideas of Bengali nationalism and identity.” In December 1971, in the final days of the war, they murdered hundreds of prominent doctors, engineers, journalists, and lawyers.
On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani army surrendered at Dhaka’s Ramna Racecourse, and
Most of Jamaat-e-Islami’s top leaders, says Kabir, are former razakars and “enemies of
A few days later, I made an appointment with Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, the assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, whom the Nirmul Committee has accused of war crimes. According to the committee, Kamaruzzaman was “the principal organizer” of one of the most ruthless razakar brigades. Their pamphlet alleges that in 1971 Kamaruzzaman dragged a professor naked through the streets of Sherpur, a city in central
Kamaruzzaman wears nice suits and gold-framed glasses, and his mustache and goatee are so finely kempt they look stencilled. Critics sneer at him for being “all suited and booted,” which they say reflects Jamaat-e-Islami’s aims to dupe the masses. We snacked on two plates of potato chips, which he ate with his pinky askance.
Despite Jamaat-e-Islami’s advances in recent elections, Kamaruzzaman admits that there are numerous barriers to its growth. Its role in the 1971 war, he told me, “can be an obstacle. But we are addressing it. We have accepted reality and are now working for
But what about the “Hindu factor”? If Jamaat-e-Islami ever hopes to enact its Islamic revolution, then it will have to undo centuries of cross-pollination between Hindu and Muslim cultures in
“We don’t want to impose anything. Of course, there should be a law that, in public places, someone should not be ill-dressed or undressed. But sense should prevail.” He paused a moment before reaching in my direction, palm upturned as if to present his next idea on a silver platter: “You know, self-censorship.”
Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh may not be the biggest of the Islamist groups, but its activities provide a terrifying example of how even the tiniest outfits can shake—or destabilize—a society. On the morning of August 17, 2005, JMB simultaneously detonated 459 bombs in 63 of
The irony of the leaflets was that just a year earlier the government and its man-made law had built up Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh in order to fend off a menace from the left. Bands of Communist rebels known as Sarbaharas had been growing stronger near the northwest city of
Meanwhile, just across the border in
The government initially treated JMB with respect. At least eight members of the national assembly bankrolled the group, according to a report in the January 30, 2007, edition of the Bengali daily Prothom Alo. In a phone interview, a member of JMB recalled police officers publicly saluting the JMB operations chief, Siddiqul Islam, or “Bangla Bhai”—Bengali Brother. At the time, Bangla Bhai was torturing and terrorizing anyone who he thought was even remotely sympathetic to the Sarbahara’s.
Gradually, as the Sarbahara’s were defeated, the government withdrew its support for Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh and had several of its members arrested. Bangla Bhai felt betrayed and used. JMB resolved to send the government a message. “We wanted to frighten everyone about our strength,” the JMB member told me. The organization trained in camps alongside remote riverbanks and in jungle clearings. Maulana Abdur Rahman, the group’s spiritual guide, would stand in front of the blackboard, sketching out tactics and strategy. Both Rahman and Bangla Bhai carried gym bags filled with grenades wherever they went and clutched field-hockey sticks to use in the event of an ambush. In a Daily Star interview, Rahman warned, “We don’t believe in the present political trend,” which is to say in democracy and elections.
The bombings in 2005 stunned the nation. Parents rushed to pull their kids out of school and offices closed early. But for Swapan Bhuiyan, it was a call to action. For years, people like him and Shahriar Kabir had been warning people about the threat militant Islamic groups posed to
Bhuiyan, a gentle-seeming middle-aged man with dark skin and a grey beard, represents a growing class of militant secularists. Many of them are former socialists or communists who have refashioned their ideology to oppose everything that the Islamists stand for. Bhuiyan told me, “I know you shouldn’t kill other humans, but these Islamic fundamentalists are like wild dogs. The Islamists have been destroying our values since 1971. They killed our golden sons in the last days before liberation.” I had met Bhuiyan about a year earlier in
Bhuiyan has fought for a secular
When the lights in the Revolutionary Unity Front’s office eventually powered on, I could make out the faces of the other six people in the room. Most of them were in their 30s, born after the 1971 war. “We are all anti-fundamentalists,” Bhuiyan said, gesturing around the room. The others nodded. Although their brothers, sisters, and cousins weren’t killed by razakars, their generation is no less militantly secular. “The secular culture of the common people is strong enough to defeat Islamic fundamentalism here,” Manabendra Dev, the 25-year-old president of the Bangladesh Students Union at
I asked Bhuiyan how he viewed the contest of ideologies in modern
The boom of NGOs is indicative of Bangladeshis’ inclination to act in the name of some greater calling. Perhaps more than in any other country, protests and strikes are seen as legitimate avenues of political discourse here.
“The history of our country is one of sacrifice and struggle,” Manabendra Dev said to me one afternoon in the “second parliament.” People’s movements have defeated foreign armies, overthrown a military government, and forced concessions from a multinational energy giant. (In August 2006, Asia Energy Corporation abandoned a lucrative open-pit coal-mining project in Fulbari, a city in the northwest, after months of demonstrations against their shady dealings and environmentally damaging work.) With this kind of track record, people are optimistic that society will be able to repel the forces of fundamentalism.
As part of their efforts, Shahriar Kabir’s Nirmul Committee has built 80 private libraries around the country, targeting places where the Islamist parties are strongest. Each library doubles as a museum for the Liberation War; while Jamaat-e-Islami is trying to put 1971 behind them, Kabir’s libraries are keeping the narrative alive. In
Later that night, Kamran Hasan Badal, the president of Nirmul’s
The longer we spoke, the more I sensed Badal’s animosity toward anyone who wore a headscarf or beard. I asked how he differentiated between symbols of religious revivalism and so-called “Talibanization.” There seemed little room for compromise in his mind. “We are against anyone who capitalizes on religion for political gains,” he said.
After our conversation I left the quiet alley where the bookstore was located and stepped into the frenetic streets of
On the night of January 11, 2007, after three months of violent protests, President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency. The move dashed the hopes of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, whose alliance was heading for a landslide victory in the January 22 elections; in early January, the Awami League–led opposition bloc had announced its intention to boycott the polls. The decision to boycott convinced the international community that January elections could be neither free nor fair. By the time I arrived in
In the following weeks, army and police units launched an aggressive anticorruption drive. Scheduling an interview in
Mustafizur Rahman, the research director at the Center for Policy Dialogue, a think tank in Dhaka, said, “Jamaat-e-Islami has handled things very tactfully. They just aren’t into the business of extortion like the other two parties,” he added, referring to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League. A top army general, who asked not to be identified, said, “Every devil has its pluses and minuses. And at least Jamaat is relatively honest.” Their party workers, the general added, are the only people in the country who show up for anything on time, “pencils sharpened and ready to take notes.”
Even Harry K. Thomas, the former American ambassador to
Jamaat-e-Islami’s commitment to elections puts voters in an awkward situation. What constitutes democracy? Is it elections? Or liberalism? Should voters back a liberal, one-woman party like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or the Awami League? Or the democratic but illiberal Jamaat-e-Islami? Who is a liberal, democratic Bangladeshi to support?
In light of the mainstream parties’ autocratic ways and backroom deals with Islamist parties, Abul Barkat is relying on civil-society groups to build and sustain a convincing model of secularism. Though the Islamists are strong, he is confident that they aren’t going to win. “Jamaat-e-Islami can only succeed if we, as civil society, fail,” he said. He rehashed his days as a freedom fighter and nodded slowly, as if impressed by his own strength of character. “The burden is on us.”
After our first meeting at Al-Markazul Islami, Mufti Shahidul Islam and I stayed in frequent contact. I think he liked having an American friend; perhaps he thought our relationship would shield him from allegations of being pro-Taliban. But on the first Friday in February he didn’t show up for a planned meeting at the headquarters of Al-Markazul Islami. When I inquired into his whereabouts, a colleague of his told me that he was in bed. “High blood pressure,” he added. Four days later, Shahidul was arrested for having links to militant Islamist organizations.
The following morning, I visited Kamal Hossain, the former law minister, who wrote the 1972 constitution. Hossain has a deep voice and modest bulges of fat around his cheeks and knuckles. He heads a political party known as the People’s Forum. I met him at his house, where we sat in a room with towering ceilings, Turkmen carpets, and glass coffee tables.
“I see that the army arrested a political ally of yours yesterday.”
“Mine? No, no, no,” Hossain said. His party belonged to the Awami League’s electoral alliance that Khelafat Majlish had joined. He glared at me. “I feel insulted and offended and outraged that I should be called an ally of this man. The signing of the deal with Khelafat Majlish was about rank opportunism and totally unprincipled politics,” he said. Spittle collected on his lips. “Some of us are still guided by principle.”
Hossain describes himself as faithful Muslim, but he is also a militant secularist. He admires the way that the U.S. Constitution framed secularism. The rise of groups like Khelafat Majlish and Jamaat-e-Islami, he believes, is totally anathema to that style of secularism. “I go into the Jamaat areas and tell them, ‘You have completed misinterpreted Islam. The Prophet didn’t summon you as guides. We had Islam in
As the author of the 1972 constitution, Hossain played as pivotal a role as anyone in deciding the nature of secularism in
Hossain struggles to determine a proper course of action. Immediately after the Awami League signed the memorandum of understanding with Khelafat Majlish, many secular-minded people experienced near paralysis. Hossain cautions that, especially now, society should be vigilant not to be “psychologically blackmailed” into inaction.
But inaction is only one possibility. Overreaction is another.
One evening, near his hometown of Dinajpur, Swapan Bhuiyan and I were sitting on a flat-bed trolley being pulled by a bicycle when we passed a one-room madrasa standing in the middle of a rice patty. Banana and coconut trees leaned over the ramshackle structure. “They are training terrorists there,” Bhuiyan said.
The madrasa sign was written in Bengali and Urdu, and I could see that the seminary was for young women memorizing the Quran. “Swapan, it’s a girl’s madrasa,” I chuckled. “Not all madrasas and mosques are training terrorists.”
He jerked his head side to side. Then he shared a short Bengali parable with me. In it, a cow gets burned by fire. The rest of its life, the cow is too afraid to even look at the sunset.
Bhuiyan paused. “We are thinking like that,” he said. “When we hear about a new madrasa we get frightened.” #
This article was first published in Boston Review, May/June 2007
Nicholas Schmidle is a writer and fellow at the
THE current interim government of
Although population wise
Dr. ATM Shamsul Huda, current Chief Election Commissioner is the brother-in-law of our Education Advisor Ayub Quaderi. Does it mean Dr. Huda or Ayub Quaderi, one or the other, should not be allowed to hold office? No. If they are competent, let them hold the office to serve the community and the nation. Similarly, replacement of Dr. Iftekhar Chowdhury and Mrs. Geteara Safiya, grand daughter of our pride Dr. Mohammed Shahidullah would be a disservice.
Person who appears to be mostly vocal against 'family politics' is our Law Advisor Mainul Hossein. Reportedly he wanted to have the
Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed's two close relatives basically his wife's elder brothers, Faruque Ahmed Chowdhury is the AL Adviser and the other brother Enam Ahmed Chowdhury is the BNP Adviser. Current Corruption Commission Chairman, Lt. Gen (Retd.) Mashud Chowdhury is also their relative. However, they are all highly qualified and competent and the nation needs their services. Therefore, such 'family politics' slogan ‘without any qualification’ could be politically cheap but may not serve the people's or nation's long term interest. Rather, such combination may reduce political polarization and rivalries that caused harm to the nation in the recent past.
Family politics is common especially in South Asia and even in mature democracies such as
American democracy has matured over centuries. It’s not perfect but maybe better than that of others. Yet it has ‘family politics’. The 41st President George H. W. Bush's son 43rd President George W. Bush who is messing up the world is second such case in
Dr. Abdul Momen, a professor of economics and business management, Boston, USA
This article was contributed on
Friday, May 18, 2007
Because of the folly of a few politicians who wanted to rig the election by questionable means our motherland,
One of the disturbing occurrences is the killing of Mr. Cholesh Richil (a Garo tribe leader) by the combined forces consisting of army, police, and rapid action battalion. Dr. Zafar Iqbal wrote a sub-editorial on the gruesome killing of Mr. Richil by the combined forces in vernacular newspaper, Prothom-Alo, a few days ago. It is difficult to control emotion for the victim, Mr. Cholesh Richil and to control anger against those who committed the crime by killing him mercilessly. The description of the killing given by Dr. Zafar Iqbal exposed the sadistic and animalistic nature of those individuals, who killed the minority community leader from Madhupur area of Mymensingh district.
Dr. Zafar Iqbal’s sub-editorial indicates that Mr. Richil was returning from the wedding ceremony of his nephew while he was picked up by forty armed persons of the combined forces. They took him to their camp where they tied the victim to a window grill. An officer ordered his people to give Mr. Richil a lesson. Following the army boss’s order, nine people started beating Mr. Richil in an inhuman and brutal fashion. At one point, Mr. Richil started throwing blood through his mouth and became unconscious. When he got his conscious back, the killers started to beat him again. Then, they poured hot water through the nose of the victim. The killers did several things that include: taking his nails off from the fingers, inserting nails in his hands and legs, and gauged his eyes. Dr. Zafar Iqbal knew about many more torture unleashed upon Mr. Richil but these were so brutal, sadistic, and animalistic that he preferred not to mention them at all. Finally, the hapless victim died in the hands of his killers of the combined forces. We saw and heard about these brutalities by the Pakistani military in 1971 but in 2007 Mr. Richil was tortured and killed by the combined forces of his own country
There are ample reasons why the combined forces targeted the Garo community leader. Read on and you will learn more on this. Originally, Mr. Cholesh Richil antagonized the fundamentalist alliance government under Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). The government wanted to establish an Eco-Park in Modhupur, where Garo tribe people lived. It was planned to evict about twenty five thousand Garo tribe people systematically from Modhupur. Mr. Cholesh Richil organized the Garo tribe people and subsequently led a protest rally on January 3, 2004. The police forces under then fundamentalist government fired shots mercilessly at the rally. One person died and many tribal people were wounded. Subsequently, the government filed five thousand cases against the Garo people in Modhupur police station. In almost all the cases, Cholesh Richil was named as an accused. Under protest from different quarters along with the tribe people, the government stopped building the Eco-Park. In the emergency rule under the government of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, the works on building the Eco-Park resumed. Mr. Cholesh Richil again organized the tribe people and protested. As a consequence, he was picked up and later killed by a group of people belonging to the combined forces.
In a Bangla vernacular newspaper it was recently mentioned that the forest department officials in Madhupur has adversarial relationship with Mr. Richil. The Garo community leader opposed indiscriminate cutting of the trees in the nearby forest. In all likelihood the forest officials were illegally cutting the trees to pocket the money. Therefore, they also targeted Mr. Richil for harassment. It makes sense why the government forces had arrested the minority community leader.
In another development, in the SAARC summit,
In the past, while the newsman, Tipu Sultan was beaten by Joynal Hazari’s goons, the newspapers took an active role to protest and raised funds for the victim. Even some of the expatriate Bangalees took very praise-worthy steps to collect funds. It is a mystery for a relative silence of the media and other organizations on the brutal and gruesome murder of Mr. Cholesh Richil. I sincerely hope that Mr. Richil’s ethnicity is not the reason for this deafening silence and indifference on the part of mainstream newspapers. I hope that all will come forward and will raise their strong voice to protest the killing of an innocent man, who was killed so brutally and mercilessly. #
SHABBIR AHMED is an engineer in
THE big bombshell from the U.S. Senate reached Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed’s desk on May 15, 2007. Fifteen prominent
No one really told the 145 million citizens of
Even though the nation made progress in various field notably in food production during 1996 through 2001 and made inroads in garments and apparel industries but politically-backed corruption and graft were on the rise exponentially. The country topped the list of most corruption consecutively for the last 3-4 years as per Transparency International (TI), which assigns the ranking of most corrupt nations on earth. Also, the very political parties that ruled the nation for last 15 years were not practicing democracy themselves. The leadership was confined to two political families and there were no signs in the horizon to indicate that the leadership of two major parties was about to change anytime soon. The corruption was so endemic and deep rooted that the eldest son of Khaleda Zia, the departing Prime Minister earned the dubious distinction of Mr. Ten Percent. The prodigal son ran a parallel government and he took bribes right and left thus becoming a billionaire in a short span of 5 years. A new class of super rich was born in
In October 2006, Khaleda Zia’s government resigned after completing the term and the nation was preparing to hold another parliamentary election on January 22, 2007. The opposition vehemently protested against the holding of election fearing that a level playing field did not exist and the administration and election commission was restructured by departing administration in a way to allow for massive vote rigging. The opposition also complained about the veracity of the voters’ list, which supposedly contained 10% fake voters. A supposedly “neutral” interim caretaker government took power in the last week of October 2006 headed by the partisan president by breaching the constitution. That caretaker government did not do any reform of the Election Commission and nor did they correct the voters’ list that contained enough ghost voters to sway the election result in favor of Khaleda Zia’s party. Consequently, there was a stalemate, which led to the paralysis in government. On January 11, 2007 barely 11 days before the election emergency was declared at the behest of the military. Buckled under pressure, the partisan president, Iajuddin Ahmed, resigned from the position of the chief adviser of caretaker government. A new interim government was formed on January 12, 2007 again breaching the constitution, which was led by 10 technocrats headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed.
The events of last 125 days under the military-backed interim government kept the masses on their toe. The government was set to clean up the Augean stable of
The second task the government took was to reform the existing political parties. They formulated a plan, which was dubbed by the press as "Minus Two" plan. Under this plan the two party chairpersons, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wazed, would be sent to exile and the two major parties, Awami League and BNP, would undergo reform. It was expected that the new leadership will take charge of these two parties. There was another initiative taken by the military-backed government that concerns the birth of a third political party.
In March 2007 Sheikh Hasina visited
The interim government did everything to prolong their grip on power. It spent too much time to accost the alleged corrupt politicians without reforming the election commission. It revamped the anti corruption commission placing a new administrator from military background. However, no real effort was made to change the voters’ list. The government to support their ‘go slow’ policy said it may take 2 years before the election could be held. Sheikh Hasina vehemently protested against the long delay and the US Administration is also applying pressure on the government to hold the election at an earlier date.
The two major areas where the interim government failed miserably are: controlling the price of staples and foodstuffs; gross human rights violation. The spiraling price hike of rice, lentil, and other agro-commodities led to inflationary tendencies in
The Fakhruddin Administration has earned a bad name due to their poor human rights record. First, to clean up the capital the government demolished slums that housed tens and thousands of poor people. The poor has no lobby whatsoever; therefore, the government in their zeal to clean up the capital city had displaced thousands of residents. Second, an estimated 170,000 people or even more are now languishing in jail without any formal charge against them. Third, the elite law and order force, RAB, had killed few dozens people under custody. Fourth, the military also killed many people and one such instance had caught the attention of International organizations, Amnesty International that deal in human rights violation.
A tribal leader belonging to Garo community was arrested by the military, tortured, and killed in March 2007. This news has already embarrassed the government but a deafening silence centering this gross abuse of human rights has mired the military and the government. The Fakhruddin Administration is acting like the proverbial ostrich by burying its head in the sand. The human rights abuses done by the government agencies may however break the proverbial camel’s back.
In summary, the Fakhruddin Administration is in power for over 125 days. Some say that it is a government that cannot be supported by the existing constitution of the country. While the government is trying to break the monopoly of the two families, the Chief Advisor had appointed three of his family members in the interim government. Some progress has been achieved to apprehend corrupt politicians but the administration is too slow to frame charges against the arrestee. The government’s initiatives to float a new political party centering Yunus had failed and so did the exile attempt on Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. There are persistent rumor that the government is working to float yet another party with the help of Dr. Kamal Husein. The inflationary pressure on foodstuffs has not yet ebbed thus causing price to escalate further. The government gets an F mark in upholding the civil rights of the citizens. The death of Cholesh Richil, the Garo community leader and others who dies under custody may make waves and send a very negative image of the nation. The government is surely acting like a behemoth too slow to prepare the voter list. While the spokesperson for the government had alluded to the media that it may take even two years to hold the election, the major political parties are showing their dissatisfaction to the proposal. And now comes the wake-up call from 15 senior
Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from