Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Old Books Fade Hard

It began immediately after the Independence when four young booksellers started selling second-hand books and magazines on the pavement outside the Balaka cinema hall. Within years, that small step became a giant leap forward for the bookworms of the country. When prices of both local and international books have been spiraling at a geometric progression, Islamia Book Market in Nilkhet provides the readers books and magazines at unbelievably affordable prices. This, along with its close proximity to most of the major educational institutions in the city, have made Nilkhet a lucrative place to run any business. Ownership of shops that were once sold at Tk 400 now costs a whopping Tk 3 lakh. Nilkhet means books, and of course business too.

Nilkhet’s Islamia Book Market’s history is almost as old as 68-year-old Abdur Rashid Miah’s love affair with recycled books. And like Nilkhet, it happened by chance. Rashid used to assist Abbas, a West-Pakistani bookseller, in a bookshop by the Naz cinema hall in Gulistan during the early sixties. In the aftermath to Bangladesh’s liberation, Abbas fled to Karachi assigning the bookshop to Rashid. "I was so scared," Rashid says; "I had to take the books away to a safer place because riots broke out; and everybody knew it was a West Pakistani’s shop."
On top of it all Rashid had no idea where to keep them. He later dumped all the 1800 books on the balcony of Balaka cinema hall. After coming back from his village to the newly liberated Dhaka Rashid was skeptical about getting back the books he left. "So many people have died in the war; and these are only books," Rashid says. But, to his utter surprise, the young bookseller found his books intact. "I cried that day," Rashid says.
Soon he met three other booksellers, Enayet Karim, Abul and Moti Miah, on the pavement in front of the New Market. "The place was quite different then," Rashid walks down the memory lane further. "The whole Nilkhet was like a big football maidan; only there were some Biharis…they used to do menial jobs in different offices, some of them even raised cows. Nilkhet was pretty much like a village then," Rashid says.
Things started changing rapidly immediately after the independence. Within months, more and more businessmen joined Rashid, Enayet, Abul and Moti on the footpath in selling old books and magazines. Barrister Nurul Islam Talukdar, a lawyer, meanwhile, bought a big piece of land adjacent to the Balaka cinema hall; "Small shops were built with corrugated tin," Rashid says. And as the place was nearer to some of the major educational institutions of the country, the shops primarily focused on selling books. "There were plenty of stolen books around the city at that time," Rashid remembers. "Most of the books we got were looted from different bookshops and libraries across the city," he continues.
But soon Rashid and his fellow booksellers faced a huge problem that threatened to destroy their small success: the diminishing supply of looted books. "We were getting worried," Moti admits. Fortunately they were soon relieved of their worries. Rashid, on behalf of the booksellers, started visiting old-newspaper-vendors’ places. "Loads of foreigners, who used to stay in Dhanmandi, usually sold their books off to the old newspaper-vendors before leaving the country," he says. Rashid established a good rapport with a storehouse of old-newspapers; and within a few days Nilkhet found a new lifeline, which is still up and running.
But not all books in the Islamia Market come from old newspaper vendors. Golam Sarwar Shopon runs a successful business in Nilkhet, and instead of old newspaper sellers he relies on middlemen for his regular supply of books and magazines.
Shopon, a Master of Arts in Sociology, has a unique story to narrate. "As a student I always came here for reference books. Sometimes I wandered around the place just leafing through books, reading the blurbs or skimming down the contents pages of magazines," says Shopon. And that was all. "I did not really know how these books were coming. Whenever I read an old book I didn’t even think once who the book belonged to before me," Shopon continues.
But Shopon’s indifference disappeared on a Friday evening of 1991 purely for practical considerations. "At the end of my masters I was getting prepared for the BCS exams," Shopon recalls; "I was living on my own," he continues, "and it became quite difficult for me to meet my everyday expenses."
Shopon toyed with the idea of starting a bookshop of his own for the time being. "We lost five years of our lives in a ‘session jam’ during Ershad’s regime, and I thought what if I just flunked in the BCS," the 38-year-old businessman says.
Actually when Shopon entered the business with an initial capital of Tk 1400, his parents did not mind at all. "They wanted me to concentrate more on the BCS, but my parents were happy that I was earning money so soon after finishing my studies," Shopon says. "I never wanted to take it as a profession," he continues. But Shopon’s worst nightmare came true when he failed to pass even the preliminary test of the BCS exams; "I was so depressed. I locked myself up in my village home for three days," recalls Shopon.
Through sheer endurance and unflinching resolve Shopon got over this setback. Now Shopon earns Tk 30,000 every month, and the business, which was started with Tk 16000 borrowed from friends, now has a working capital of Tk 40 lakh.

Islamia Market is a reader’s paradise. Everyday hundreds of people walk down the narrow allies of the market, searching for books of their interest. Some of the narrow passages that snake through the 3000sft area of Nilkhet are not clearly visible even in daylight. But this hardly deters readers who flock together irrespective of their age and gender.
Shahed Noor was only 7 when he first went to Nilkhet. "My father is a great fan of Western Classics. We are from the middle income group, and we don’t have any other place to buy books than Nilkhet," Shahed says. "Any Louis L’amor classic would cost Tk 300-400 in any bookshops in Gulshan, but in Nilkhet it won’t be more than Tk 20 even now," he continues.
Shahed now teaches Mathematics in an English-medium-school, but he can vividly recall the day he first went to Nilkhet. "Abba took me to the market to buy ‘Amaar Boi’, you won’t be able to fathom how excited I was," Shahed says with a broad smile. Going to Nilkhet to buy books turned into an enduring passion. Shahed’s mother did not like the idea of her son reading comic books, as she thought it was a waste of her husband’s hard earned money. "Amma even slapped me once when she found an old copy of GQ under my pillow," Shahed smiles. Shahed was in the Tenth grade then.
Shahed’s mother put all the hard feelings aside when she found an old copy of Anondolok on the footpath of Islamia Market. "She always loved to watch old Uttam Kumar movies. And as she was crossing the road she found the magazine with a rare photograph of Uttam Kumar on the cover, staring at her," Shahed says. The ban on Nilkhet was soon lifted.
But the comic books that Shahed loved to read are now a rare commodity in Nilkhet. "Old comic books are not coming to the market that much now a days," says Shopon. "Young people are reading less and watching cartoons on television more," he continues. "The types of book people crave for have been changed with time," Shopon points out, "It has something to do with the change in people’s tastes I guess." Daniel Steels, good old Mills and Boons, and western classics are all being sold like hotcakes, he says.
First timers will be surprised to find the hardcover first-edition copy of Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus or old issues of the Rolling Stones. Shops on the northern corner of the market mostly sell modern classics. But books that have just come out of the market a month or two ago are not difficult to come by either. A copy of Martin Amis’s new novel, The Yellow Dog, was being on display in a shop last Saturday.
Meanwhile, Nilkhet became a necessity for Shahed when he entered Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). "Most of the books on engineering, and the medical journals the students study in the country are not available in the country," says Shahed. "I couldn’t see an original copy of any book I studied in my whole BUET life," he says; "even now teachers usually give the textbooks to photocopy shops in Nilkhet and tell the students to collect the Xeroxed copy of the books from the shops," Shahed continues.
This same old story repeats itself in most of the major institutions of the country. For thousands of English-medium students of the country Nilkhet is the only regular source of reference books and question-papers. Most of them are pirated ones though; and Abdur Rashid, one of the pioneers, think this practice is deplorable and a sheer insult to the writers’ hard work. "I know some unscrupulous businessmen who photocopy books only to sell it at a lower price. Some even send people to different libraries to lift books," he says.
Abdur Rashid himself is a victim of such malpractice. During the late eighties I found two copies of Grease’s Anatomy Lessons in the old-newspapers vendors at Dhanmandi 27. "I didn’t know that these two books were sold by Kadir and Chowdhury, two famous crooks of the city; being an idiot I couldn’t even notice the seal of the Asia Foundation on the cover of the book " the sixty-eight-year old bookseller says.
All hell broke loose for Rashid Miah when two Asian Foundation staff members turned up two days later with the police. A warrant was issued against him for stealing two books from the Asia Foundation. Rashid was forced to sell the shop at a meager Tk 300; for the last eight years Rashid has been selling old-books and magazines on the footpath in front of Nazrul’s Mazaar. Every story, it seems, does not have a happy ending.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

One Flew over Falu's Nest

Rampant corruption and unprecedented rigging in the Dhaka-10 by-poll are reminiscent of the elections held in the forlorn days of military rule. People have been denied their right to vote again; this time by a government that enjoys absolute majority in the parliament.
July 1. 10:30 in the morning. At the Udayan High School polling centre, a group of Jatyatabadi Chatra Dal (JCD) leaders were seen lurking around the area, which had as many as 2,619 votes. "Don't waste your time here. Your votes have been cast; have ice-cream and leave the place," a JCD worker told six voters. "Our strategy was quite simple. In the first hours of the day, we cast votes of those who were unlikely to cast for Falu bhai," said a BNP-loyalist to the Daily Star (DS) reporter. "The party hierarchy said we would be held responsible if Falu bhai fails to get 80 percent of the votes in this centre," another JCD leader reasoned for this unsolicited service to the voters.
The same old farce was re-enacted in all the 103 polling stations of the constituency.
Rigging, in fact, began literally before the election saw the light of the day. Truckloads of BNP-men-- most of them not voters of the area-- gathered at different parts of the city in the early morning of July 1. The much-talked about by-poll was turned into a sham within two hours. "Fake voters from Demra, Lalbagh, Kamrangir Char, Motijheel and Shabujbagh 'cast' votes mostly between 8 am and 10 am," a DS report says.
Most of the polling centres remained off-limits to the agents of the opposition Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh (BDB). Hoodlums belonging to the ruling party even manhandled BDB candidate Major (retd) Abdul Mannan in the Hossain Ali Primary School centre in the early morning. "The government did not deploy the army at the polling centres," an angry Mannan told the journalists while leaving the booth in a press car. "I had no option but to boycott the election and appeal to the election commission to cancel the Dhaka-10 by-poll," he continued.
It was, however, a different story inside the red building of the election commission secretariat. Chief Election Commissioner Abu Sayed went abroad on a long vacation; and the Acting Chief Election Commissioner (ACEC) Safiur Rahman was not in the office when Mannan, along with fellow BDB MP Mahi B Chowdhury, stormed the EC secretariat at around 1:45. Munsef Ali, one of the election commissioners, was holding the fort. And when Mannan complained that army-men were not deployed in every polling centre, Munsef replied, "But I have seen them." Mahi B Chowdhury, this time, ran him through Mannan's plea. But, a visibly unperturbed Munsef stuck to his guns and replied, "I have seen members of the army in both the centres I have visited." At this point Mannan just lost his cool. "You are telling a lie," the BDB candidate hollered at the election commissioner. Munsef, too, reacted angrily, "You can't speak like this. It is you who is lying."
But Safiur Rahman, the ACEC, did not buy Munsef's idea. "The High Court order (regarding deployment of army in every polling centre) was flouted and there was no polling agent of Bikalpa Dhara at most centres," Safiur told the awaiting journalists. "Voting was unrealistic at some times…I can only say the poll was not totally satisfactory," he continued.
The ACEC's first-hand knowledge about the by-poll, however, was unmistakably sour. While visiting the BG Press Government Primary School polling centre Safiur found around 50 percent votes had been already cast, though he could not find a single voter in the booth.
The ACEC, however, has refused to cancel the results of the by-poll. We do not have any evidence of polling centre captures or stuffing of ballot boxes, he said. Election cannot be annulled on the ground of the absence of army alone, he continued. Safiur, however, said, "I hope legal action will be taken against individuals responsible for the violation of electoral laws. The High Court will take legal action if the matter is brought to its cognisance." The EC has not done that yet.
All is well in the BNP camp though. While independent observers have denounced the result by terming it "a farce", Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, the BNP general secretary has described the election as "free, fair and peaceful". Bikalpa Dhara contested the election not to win it; they just participated in the polls only to bring allegations against the BNP as a strategy for its publicity, the BNP secretary general claims.
Sharmeen Murshid, chairperson of Brotee, an independent election monitoring organisation, has a different story to narrate. "We, citizens and voters, note with concern, shame and anger the degradation of the election commission from an independent constitutional body to a mere expansion of the government and a tool in the hands of subsequent governments to manipulate elections," she said while presenting Brotee's report on Dhaka-10 by-poll.
Muhammad Abdul Matin, secretary general of Fair Election Monitoring Alliance (FEMA), agrees. Matin describes the election as "an unusual event in the history of the country", and a "one sided show". Sacks of ballot papers in the possession of the assistant presiding officers of most of the polling stations were found to have been stamped in advance with official seal of the EC to provide ample scope for stuffing, a FEMA report says. The participation of voters, according to Brotee's report, was very low too. Though the total presence of voters is recorded as 73 percent, the average vote cast was a mere 38 percent; 35 percent of the genuine voters left the booths without casting their ballots, the report alleges. "Of the 38 percent votes cast, 55 percent were false, and the rest 45 percent were genuine," Brotee, which has used "vote matrix" to monitor the by-poll, says.
The BDM, meanwhile, staged demonstrations at the entrance to the High Court building on July 8. The BDM workers carried a coffin and a scale to protest what they said "the death of democracy and massive rigging in the by-poll". "These are all about Dhaka-10 by-poll. The coffin is the symbol of the corpse of democracy," Mahi B Chowdhury said.

Terror in the Name of God

For the Bangladeshi-born British envoy, Anwar Chowdhury, the forenoon of May 21 started without any clue of what was in the offing. It was 1:35 and a huge crowd of people greeted Anwar, as he was about to leave the Shrine of Shahjalal after saying Friday prayers. But as the envoy, only 18 days into his new job, reached the exit door of the 700-year-old tomb, a bearded man in his early forties halted the High Commissioner's way. "The man was telling Anwar to give him some money," recalls Advocate Abdul Hai Khan, Anwar Chowdhury's grandfather and a witness to the mayhem that would follow.

Khan was helping the envoy out of the melee and he smelled a rat when the man did not get out of their way after repeated requests. "I grew suspicious. I looked up at him; the man was well built and was wearing a fashionable Comillar fatua," he says. This man cannot be a beggar, Khan thought; so when the High Commissioner told Khan to give the "beggar" 100 Taka, he said, "Just look at him Anwar, this person is not at all a beggar." Don't be so rude nana, Anwar replied. Khan, in turn, obliged his grandson; the Sylhet-based lawyer reached down for his purse and handed the beggar a hundred-Taka note.

But within seconds, a grenade was thrown at the British High Commissioner; the bomb hit the parameter wall of the shrine as he threw it up after it bumped on his lower abdomen. "Anwar told me, 'Nana, save me; they have thrown a bomb at us'," Khan recalls. "Within a few seconds," he continues, "there was a huge bang; we both fell on the pavement; and I saw blood rolling on the ground from the High Commissioner's body."

Though no one has claimed responsibility for the attack; Advocate Abdul Hai Khan believes it was not at all unexpected. Only months ago, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) MP Delwar Hossain Saiedi urged a gathering at the nearby Alyah Madrasah field to resist what he called bedat (heretical activities) in the shrine. Four days later, on January 12, a bomb was exploded at the shrine. The police arrested 24 people in connection to the blast; a probe body was formed headed by the superintendent of the police. But that committee's report has not yet seen the light of the day despite repeated extensions of time. No progress has also been made on nine other blasts that rocked the north-eastern city since 1997 and have claimed 14 lives.

In the last five years 140 have been killed and around 1,000 injured in several bomb blasts that ripped through different public places across the country. Whoever the perpetrators are, says security expert Brig-gen Shahedul Anam Khan, the intention was to create panic and reap political dividend of these blasts. Khan believes the subsequent governments' failure to nab the culprits means, "either we are not capable of doing it or the major political parties do not want to see the culprits on the dock."

The first such blast, in fact, took place in Jessore on March 6, 1999; the Awami League (AL), then at the helm, blamed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-backed religious zealots for the incident. Within two years, terror struck at the heart of the capital on March 6, 1999; seven Communist Party members died in simultaneous blasts at the Paltan Maidan in Dhaka. Two more incidents of blasts jolted the AL rule that ended in 2001. Though during its five-year-term the AL government had failed to nab anyone for the blasts, it could not resist guessing who the culprits were.

The BNP, on the other hand, after coming to power, has been religiously following the path of its predecessor; only the other way around. The party has been denying the presence of religious extremists from the very first blast by describing it as a ploy to damage the country's image abroad. "Sometimes it sounds as if the BNP has made a policy decision to deny the link of the zealots to the blasts," says Brig-Gen. Anam.

In fact, the BNP-led government banned copies of Time magazine and Far Eastern Economic Review for portraying Bangladesh as a hotbed of religious extremism. The most publicised case in this saga happened in 2002 when two British journalists from Channel Four came to the country to make a documentary on the presence of religious extremist outfits in the country. Zaiba Naz Malik and Bruno Sorrentino were later released after both of them, according to their lawyer Ajmal Hossain, "Submitted statements expressing regret for the situation arising since their arrival in Bangladesh." The government, however, did not release Selim Samad and Priscila Raj, who had been assisting them as translators.

Panic-stricken men, women and children run for cover (top) after the huge explosion at the Ramna Batamul during Bangla New Year celebrations that left nine killed and at least 20 others injured. After the gory incident, while law enforcement and intelligence agencies collected remainder of the bomb and other clues to the explosion (left), an army team had to diffuse another bomb near the Baishakhi gate.

That unwavering stand got a jolt within months when several powerful bombs went off in four movie theatres in Mymensingh. Within hours of the blasts, the prime minister, alluding to the AL chief Sheikh Hasina, blamed those "Who are making anti-Bangladesh campaign at home and abroad." The PM's comment was followed by the arrest of three Bangladesh Chatra League members; but the police was yet to arrest anyone for the blasts.

"The whole situation is really chaotic," says Brig-Gen Shahedul Anam. "BNP denies the presence of religious extremists on our soil because it needs the help of JI and other religious parties to win elections. The AL, on the other hand, are using the blasts as a pretext to label the government as an adobe of religious bigotry," he continues. The situation can turn from sad to tragic within months, he warns; "There is not any place for religious bigotry and intolerance in the country; but our failure to curb extremism may give birth to a looming disaster," the retired army-man warns.

Bangladesh's contribution to religious extremism dates back to the era of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. During the mid and late eighties, hundreds of Bangladeshis went to the country to fight for the Mujahidins against what they considered the communist invasion of an Islamic country'.

Maulana Abdur Rauf, leader of Jamiatul Islamia, who was arrested in Faridpur on September 19 last year with 17 accomplices, told the police that, like him, about 500 Bangladeshis went to Afghanistan to fight for the Jihadis, of them 33 died. Many have returned and with them have brought extremism to a country, which has always prided itself on its Sufi past.

In fact, Jane's Intelligence Review (JIR) in its May 2002 issue says, "Osama bin Laden's February 23, 1998, fatwa urging jihad against the US was co-signed by two Egyptian clerics, an unidentified Pakistani and one named Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh (JMB)." The JMB is not believed to be a separate organisation, the JIR report continues, but a common name for several groups in Bangladesh, of which Harkat ul Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HJIB) is considered the biggest and most important.

HJIB came under spotlight when the group was charged with planting two bombs at a meeting that was to be attended by the then prime minister Sheikh Hasina. "The mission of HJIB is to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh," a US State Department report says. The group has an estimated cadre strength of more than several thousand members, and it operates and trains in at least six camps (in Bangladesh), says the State Department, which has already listed the HJIB as a terrorist organisation.

Maulana Abdur Rauf who was arrested on September 19 last year along with 17 accomplices told the police that about 500 Bangladeshis went to Afghanistan, of them 33 died.
Little has been known about the group and its commander Shauqat Osman, who is also known as Sheikh Farid. "Originally the HJIB consisted of Bangladeshis who had fought as volunteers in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan," the JIR report says.

The government remains conspicuously inactive when different self-styled vigilante groups have been butchering innocent people in the name of Islam across the country. The police have yet to nab any of the members of the so-called Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), which have unleashed a reign of terror in the southern districts.

Though the prime minister has ordered the arrest of Bangla Bhai, the so-called operations commander of the militant outfit, newspaper reports suggest otherwise. "Two police officers tipped off Bangla bhai who holed up in an outlying village in Raninagar (in Naogaon district) where he set up a vigilante camp to launch 'anti-outlaw drives'," a Daily Star report says.
The government is yet to ban the group even after local dailies have run stories linking the JMJB with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda. This indifference, coupled with sheer arrogance and political myopia, leading the country to an impending disaster.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Of Faith and Deviation

IN a village around 50 kilometres off the capital, Anwar Miah has shot to fame for a unique reason. This tiny Bangladeshi hamlet of about 2000 people named him 'Afghan baba', after his second son, Sanu, died for the Talibans in the late nineties. Sanu's mamu (maternal uncle), Zoinal, accompanied him; first to Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, then to Kandahar, and saw Sanu die in the battle for Baghram with General Rashid Dostam's forces.

Zoinal returned home a month after his nephew's death, because he "couldn't bear it any more." He hasn't taken back arms since then; but like him, many have returned, and with them have brought extremism to a country once known for religious harmony and tolerance. In fact Maulana Abdur Rauf, leader of Al-Jamiatul Islamia, who was arrested on September 19, in Faridpur with 17 accomplices, told the police that about 500 Bangladeshis went to Afghanistan, of them 33 died.

Before the September 19 arrest, the government was vigorous in denying the presence of religious extremists on its soil. The BNP led Four-Party Alliance had banned issues of some international newspaper, including the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and the Far Eastern Economic Review, for breaking this news to the rest of the world. The reports, though extremely sloppy and in some cases malicious, tried to portray Bangladesh as a hotbed of religious extremism. One went too far in exaggeration-- the article published in the US weekly Time, quoting an unnamed foreign embassy staff in Dhaka, alleged that the country was playing host to Al Quiada's second in command Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The time the magazine had referred to, Al-Zawahiri was seen in a town in Afghanistan. Time didn't apologise for it.

The most publicised event in this saga happened last year. After being refused by Bangladesh mission in London, Zaiba Naz Malik and Bruno Sorrentino, two British journalists from Channel 4, concealed their identity and applied for the visa to the Bangladesh Embassy in Rome. Once they were inside the country, however, they made no secret of what they were doing. Police arrested them, along with their two Bangladeshi fixers, accusing them of trying to vilify the country by portraying it as a fundamentalist state. The two were later released, after both journalists, according to their lawyer Ajmalul Hossain, "Submitted statements expressing regret for the situation arising since their arrival in Bangladesh." The government, however, did not release Selim Samad and Pricilla Raj, who had been assisting them as translators. It was a High Court order that ensured their release.

Such was the extent to which the government rejected the presence of religious extremists here.

That unwavering stand got a jolt last December when several powerful bombs went off in four-movie theatres in Mymensingh. Investigation began, but it did not deter the prime minister from guessing the identity of the perpetrators: she blamed those "Who are making anti-Bangladesh campaign at home and abroad." No one expected a price for the right guess--it was the leader of the opposition who told a European audience, only a few days ago, in Brussels, that sympathisers of Al-Qaiada were ruling Bangladesh. That has been Sheikh Hasina and her party, Awami League's (AL) staunch line of thinking since the first such incident ripped off a cultural function in Jessore.

Like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in power, AL, then in the helm, was quick to discover the perpetrators-- even before the primary investigation had begun, it blamed the religious zealots, "under the shelter of the opposition" for the incident. BNP, then the main opposition, was quick to condemn the incident, and bizarrely, it fed several conspiracy theories, amongst them, one accusing the AL of planting bombs in public places to reap political dividend.

Interestingly, during its five-year tenure, the AL had done nothing to nab those they believed were behind the blasts. "How come the Awami League didn't crack down on these Jihadi outfits during its term in office," asks Mahmadul Islam, a student of Political Science at Dhaka University. AL's inability, Islam thinks, can be explained in one way. "Though the party wasn't sure about the perpetrators, the AL wanted to use these blasts as a tool to win the next general election."

Though the bomb blasts' investigation has so far failed to make significant breakthrough, many here believe the presence of religious extremists in the country; but they think, unlike its Asian counterparts, it is a home grown phenomenon. "We don't have Al-Qaiada in Bangladesh," says Afsan Chowdhury, an independent media analyst and former correspondent of the BBC. But Chowdhury believes, "We have people who think and work like them." In fact Jane's Intelligence Review (JIR) in its May 2002 issue says, "Osama Bin Laden's February 23, 1998 fatwa urging Jihad against the USA was co-signed by two Egyptian clerics, a Pakistani and Fazlur Rahaman, leader of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh." The Movement is not believed to be a separate organisation, the report continues, "But a common name for several Islamic groups in Bangladesh, of which a Harkat Ul Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HUJIB) is considered the biggest and most important."

HUJIB hit the headlines of local and international dailies when the group was charged with planting two bombs at a meeting that was to be attended by the then prime minister Sheikh Hasina in her home district Gopalganj. "The mission of HUJIB, led by Shauqat Osman, is to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh," says a US State Department report. It has an estimated cadre strength of more than several thousand members and it operates and trains in at least six camps," says the State Department, which has already listed HUJIB as a terrorist organisation.

So far, little has been known about the group and its elusive commander Shauqat Osman, who is also known as Sheikh Farid. According to reports on the western media, HUJIB was formed in 1992 in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Ironically the US administration actively supported the Mujahidins, fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, with arms and military logistics. "Originally, it (HUJIB) consisted of Bangladeshis who had fought as volunteers in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan," JIR says.

But, the country is in no way a fertile ground for religious intolerance. "Bangladesh is far from becoming another Pakistan, and the rise of extremism should be seen in the context of the country's turbulent politics since breaking away from Pakistan in 1971. Bangladesh was formed in opposition to the notion that all Muslim areas of former British India should unite in one country. Bangladesh is the only state in the subcontinent with one language group and very few ethnic and religious minorities," Jane's Intelligence Review says.

The country's biggest religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh was banned immediately after independence for actively supporting the Pakistani occupation forces by forming several armed militia groups during the liberation war; the ban was lifted later on, and it was allowed to operate as a political party. During the eighties, under a military dictatorship, Jamaat's appeal to establish Islamic law and good governance received a lukewarm response from general people.

In fact it was during that period Jamaat managed to get a significant number of recruits by luring them into the path of Islamic revolution. In 1991, in the first general election, the party had managed to get 18 seats in the national parliament. But once they were in democratic politics, the leadership begun to lose its charm offensive. Jamaat's coalition with the AL, then seen as a moderate left and a staunch secular, irked many of its radical supporters.

The AL ditched Jamaat before the general election, but it couldn't stop several disgruntled mid and lower ranking Jamaatis to openly voice their opposition against the party leadership. "There is a huge gap between the ideology Jamaat wants to establish and the way they are doing it," says Mahmudul Islam. "No one in the Jamaat leadership has sent their children to Maadrassahs (Religious schools)," he continues. "On the other hand," Mahmud believes, "they led a lifestyle that is an antithesis to everything true Islam stands for." Extremists groups have quickly filled up the ideological vacuum; these parties cannot be called Jamaat's natural offshoots, but they definitely constitute an ultimate by-product of its ideological failure. "It has happened before; in the sixties, the failure of a relatively moderate Communist Party had given birth to several Marxist extremist factions," Mahmud says.

Meanwhile the extremists, as elsewhere in the world, have been receiving an otherwise unusual assistance from an unwitting foreign administration. "George W Bush's foreign policy and his so-called war on terrorism have been helping the mullahs to allure a nation, already angered by the US occupation of Iraq and its regular assistance to the Israelis," says Mahmud.

"The whole situation is chaotic. BNP doesn't believe the terrorists exist, because the Awami League is pointing fingers at Jamaat, which is the BNP's main political partner in the coalition government. The AL is creating a hoopla out of all this because they want to undermine the government. The US, on the other hand, is busy with its own war, driven more by oil than anything else. Religious fanatics are microscopic minorities here, true. But then, so were the Talibans before they took over power in Afghanistan…" Mahmud says.

Stuck at Zero

We are celebrating our 33rd birthday, a birth that came at a very high cost but one that was inevitable. The founders of our nation were not just the politicians who captured the whole limelight of glory, but the millions of Muktijodhas --- men and women, some known, many unrecognised, who spontaneously gave their lives for a dream. The dream was quite simple, the aspirations quite reasonable. It was to build a nation free from the racism, bigotry, exploitation and hunger meted out by the existing power. A country where one would be free to speak one's language, to get equal opportunities to work, where basic needs of food, shelter and clothing would be met. After thirty-three years we still stand proud to be Bangladeshis but have we come any closer to the original dream called Bangladesh?

 When Bangladesh became independent in 1971, after nine months of brutal war with the Pakistani army, a society based on democratic principles and social justice was promised. In fact, during our liberation war, Bangladesh became a by-word for people's resolve to fight injustice all over the world. The country's independence coincided with the liberation of several colonies across the continent. But the situation has turned sour within years. Democracy has remained in the paper; while a few have been enjoying an economic boom, most of the citizens still live far below the poverty line; economic injustice coupled with lawlessness and corruption have put the country on the brink of a total chaos. Thirty-three years after our glorious independence we try to find the answer to a fateful question; where are we at now?

Democracy was under the guillotine by our founding fathers at early infancy. Within three years of independence Bangladesh Awami League (AL), which led the country towards independence, made Bangladesh a one-party state. Every political and administrative power was personally vested in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujib and his party, armed with absolute majority in the parliament, amended the constitution for the fourth time. It was bombastically called Mujib's second revolution, but in effect it gagged any dissident voice, if there remained any at all.

Dissident voices were silenced. Political killings and repression on opposition had isolated the party, which all through its existence had fought for people's political freedom and economic emancipation.

"Bangladesh would never have been brought to such straits in so short a period had it not been for the unbelievable sycophancy, which filled the Gonobhaban and Bangabhaban like the clouds of intoxicating vapours in an opium den. Sycophancy is on a par with mal-administration, corruption and smuggling as the prime cause for the decline of Mujib and Bangladesh," Anthony Mascarenhas, who broke the news of our liberation war to British daily the Sunday Times, writes in his book Bangladesh A Legacy of Blood.

Mujib's economic policy and brutal squashing of the opposition members led to a looming disaster; and then the worst happened. On August 15, 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed, along with 13 members of his family, by a bunch of ambitious mid-ranking army officers led by Major Faruque and Major Dalim. Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed, Mujib's long time ally and one of his ministers, declared himself president after the mayhem. September 26 that year Mushtaque and cronies promulgated the infamous Indemnity Ordinance, indemnifying the killers. The indemnity, later on, encouraged several successful and unsuccessful coup attempts in the army.

President Ziaur Rahman's five and half years in helm, according to Mascarenhas, was plagued by 20 mutinies, attempted coups and assassination attempts; in fact Zia got killed in the 21st attempt. "It is ironical that the troops who literally carried Zia to power on their shoulders during the Sepoy Mutiny in November 1974, would later try so many times to kill him," writes Mascarhenas.

Meanwhile in November 1976 as a CMLA, Zia used a frail and inept president Sayem to call off the elections that the government had so solemnly promised the nation. Then Zia unceremoniously stripped the president of authority and grabbed power for himself.

Zia then called on presidential elections in 1978, expertly tailored to effect his transformation from the military President to the military president in mufti. Zia promulgated the Proclamations (Amendment) Order in 1977, immediately after he got rid of Sayem. He replaced Secularism from the preamble of the Constitution with "Absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful"; Socialism was dropped, and "economic and social justice" replaced it. The cosmetic surgery was meant to woo the voters most of whom were practising Muslims.

No one disputes that Zia was incorruptible as far as money and wealth were concerned. He didn't own a house in Dhaka, as did almost everyone in the higher echelons of government. It has been recorded that on one occasion he took an advance against his salary to buy furniture and paid it back in instalments. He didn't gamble nor have any of the social vices. But he turned a blind eye towards the corruption of those around him.

Zia opened the economy to some extent; though he wasn't able to check the rising inflation and unemployment, his economic policy had somewhat gained popularity among the masses. Billions of Takas were spent into the General's much-hyped "Canal Digging Programme"; there is no real count of this wasted effort because the money was requisitioned from different ministries and government organisations.

Meanwhile the 21st attempt to kill the General was brewing in Chittagong. Zia went to the port city to settle a local feud in the ruling party on May 29, 1981. In the early dawn the following day Zia was killed at the Circuit House, where he had been staying overnight, by an ambitious bunch of army-men led by Gen. Abul-ala Manjur.

Only chaos followed; actually the then army-chief Gen. HM Ershad became the sole beneficiary of the disorder. Within days after Zia's killing, Ershad removed an inept and feeble Sattar--who succeeded Zia-- and declared himself the president. Only deep darkness followed.

Ershad was one the most corrupt dictators any Third World country has ever produced in modern history. To remain in power he institutionalised corruption. When Ershad was ousted in a mass upsurge in December 6, 1990, there was nothing left in the government exchequer for the salaries of the civil servants.

BNP unexpectedly won the general elections in 1991 that came after the fall of Ershad. The scale of corruption and repression remained markedly low during the BNP's new term in office. The party, however could not able to finish its five year term. Anti incumbency factor ran high during the elections, and with its long-term ideological friend, Jamaat-e-Islami, running the elections alone, the BNP had lost power to Bangladesh Awami League.

Before coming to power, in an address to the nation on the state run national television, The AL chief Sheikh Hasina sought mercy for the sins committed by her party-men during its three and half years rule after independence. But the AL's five-year-term that followed outmatched even its first term in office in misrule and corruption. The party politicised everything; even the committees that ran primary schools were not spared.

Hoodlums belonging to the AL ran the country; state run tenders were given to members of the ruling party flouting rules and regulations. Most of the ministers, after years outside power, saw this as a god-sent opportunity to make a fortune. Rules regarding promotions even in the army, in most of the cases were ignored; thugs belonging to the AL maimed journalists across the country. Several AL MPs became infamous for their blatant terrorism in their constituencies. Joynal Hazari for instance, an AL MP from Feni, soon became a godfather, controlling businesses, terrorising all those who opposed him, especially members of the opposition. Other goons of the cabinet included MP Shamim Osman from Narayanganj, Haji Selim of Dhaka-- all of them established their mafia-dom in their respective constituencies without any kind of obstacle from their leader Sheikh Hasina.

Hasina, in fact, has been the biggest disappointment for even AL supporters. Throughout her term she showed incredible tolerance to her party-men, who virtually unleashed a reign of terror all over the country. She did not ask any of her cabinet members to resign even after knowing about their criminal activities. The student wing of AL the Chhatra League carried on the legacy of their predecessors, the Chhatra Dal, with equal zeal, occupying the university halls, controlling tenders and spreading crime across the country. One group became famous for their serial rape spree in Jahangirnagar University where a Chhatra League (interestingly former Chhatra Dal) leader celebrated his 100th rape on campus. Again Hasina remained silent.

The situation has not changed since the AL was routed in the general elections of 2001. In fact, it has deteriorated further; sheer lawlessness, coupled with cronyism and corruption, has made the country the most uninhabitable place on earth. Incidents of attack on religious minorities have become rampant. Both the BNP and AL have been using religion for their own petty political interests; rising unemployment along with the government's inability to crack down on extremists religious outfits have resulted in several bomb blasts, and the attack on writer Humayun Azad.

Repression of opposition members has reached an all time high in this regime with Chhatra Dal coming into the forefront to brutally clamp down on all opponents with of course the help of the completely politicised law enforcers. In just a few weeks, when the opposition started its 'the government must step down' programme, several violent incidents took place such as the beating up of AL leaders including Saber Hossain Chowdhury and Ahsanullah Master MP, beating up of students protesting attack on Dr Humayun Azad, beating up of journalists during the general strikes, and finally, the latest attack on Dr.Badruddoza Chowdhury, Maj (Rtd) Mannan and their supporters.

Immediately after Major Mannan resigned from the parliament and joined Dr Chowdhury's 'Alternative Platform', thugs under the shelter of the ruling party vandalised different industrial compounds owned by the businessman turned politician.

As the newspaper reports suggest, the attacks were, in fact, backed by the ruling party's high command. Mannan's bank accounts with five financial institutions were seized. State's repression on opposition leaders has never reached this height before.

Dr. Badruddozza's new stance to create a third platform with the support of Dr. Kamal Hossain, has been met with some enthusiasm from the public although many cannot quite believe how a staunch supporter of a party can suddenly become its biggest opponent. But the way the BNP thugs are steamrollering him and his supporters it is uncertain whether the doctor's prescription will prevail.

After much dilly-dallying and to utter dismay of different human rights organisations, the government has recently sent the proposed 14th Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2004 to the parliamentary standing committee on law justice and parliamentary affairs. The bill, which has sought to introduce 45 reserved seats for women, has come as a slap in the face for different rights groups; for they have been demanding a direct election to these reserved seats. The government, meanwhile, remains as indifferent as ever.

All our main political parties, are shamelessly male dominated. Though the BNP is led by a woman, the party has only one female member in its 14-member National Permanent Committee, according to a Democracy Watch report. The AL on the other hand has only 5 female members in its 36-member Presidium and Secretariat; Jamaat-e-Islami has 20 female members in its 200-member Majlish-e-Shura, the report continues.

Thus the story of stagnant politics continues. The overwhelming intolerance for the opposition in the streets has created a stalemate in the parliament where the ruling party continues to play by itself. Meanwhile Sheikh Hasina can only harp on the misrule of Khaleda Zia and how her government must step down. She has nothing really new to offer. Certainly the public's memory is not so short as to forget the mess she and her party had made before. Both parties seem to think that the vote bank's leanings depend on how badly the previous government has failed, which no doubt has worked so far. Whether Dr. Badruddozza and his supporters will create any significant ripple in the inert waters of politics, remains to be seen.

In the name of free market economy the BNP has created a situation where trading has become more profitable than establishing industry. A new class and culture have been created; goons belonging to the BNP and AL, driven by get-rich-quick lifestyle and blessed by both the parties' politics have been running amok. Democracy could not be more threatened. 


Everything Falls Apart

On that fateful Friday, Dr Azad, in jeans and fatua, had been sitting in the stall of Agami Prokashani at the Ekushey Book Fair. He left the stall at around 8:45 PM; "Dr Azad left the mela, telling me he would go home," says Osman Gani, owner of the publishing house. It was around 9:30, a young man approached him for an autograph; Dr Azad crossed the road for a rickshaw after signing the autograph. And then two unknown assailants, armed with chopping knives hacked the 56-year-old writer on the jaw, lower part of the neck and hands, on the pavement outside the academy.

Conscious but profusely bleeding, Dr Azad, who has authored over 70 books, was taken to the emergency unit of Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). According to newspaper reports, no doctor was available at the emergency unit of the DMCH. Later, Dr Azad was sent to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH).

Dr Azad's attackers, might have come right out of his book, Pak Sar Jamin Sadd Baad (Pakistan's national anthem: Blessed be the Sacred Land). It depicts the story of a religious fanatic who wants to establish a "Taliban-styled distorted Pakistan" in Bangladesh.
The protagonist, a member of the Jama'-e-Jihad-e Islam Party, says in a monologue, "We aren't alone. Our brothers all over the world are doing their work. If they fly an aeroplane into a building somewhere, if cars crash into a hospital or a hotel, or if a bomb blast kills 300 people in some recreational centre, then we know it's the work of our brothers; in other words, it is our work. This is Jihad."

The name, Jama'-e-Jihad-e Islam Party, is believed to be an allegory to the Jamat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JI), a partner in the ruling coalition; as another character in the book, Karim Ali Islampuri says, "We must seize power. Right now, we are with the power and the main party. At some point, power will come to us; we will become the main party. We are entering everywhere -- Islam will be established; (another) Pakistan will be created. There won't be any infidels, Malauns (Hindus); there won't be any Hindu or Jew in guise of Muslims."

Dr Azad's novel, however, meets a melodramatic end. The zealot goes through a dramatic change of heart-- he falls in love with a Hindu girl; and later abandons the path of religious bigotry and intolerance.
But in real life, Dr Azad had been fearing for his life since the novel was first published in the Daily Ittefaq's Eid supplement in 2003. In an email to Muktomona, an independent website, he wrote, "The Ittefaq published a novel by me named Pak Sar Jamin Saad Baad in the Eid issue in December 3. It deals with the condition of Bangladesh for the last two years. Now the (religious) fundamentalists are bringing out regular processions against me, demanding exemplary punishment. The attached two files with this letter will help you understand." Along with the mail Dr Azad sent JPG files that included news of protests against him.

In fact, on January 25, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, an MP belonging to JI called for the introduction of the Blasphemy Act to block the publication of "such books". Besides Sayeedi--who once called for blood tests for journalists to see "if they are Muslims or not"-- many bigots have declared the maverick writer a murtad (apostate). From an anti-Ahmadiyya rally on December 12, Momtazi, emir of Hifazate Khatm-e-Nabuat Movement and the Imam of Rahim Metal Mosque demanded the professor's arrest and trial.

Nothing has ever deterred Dr Azad, perhaps, the lone outspoken writer in Bangla literature, from speaking out his mind. Azad has even denounced some of his contemporaries, describing their novels as opponnayash (degenerated novel). Be it in writing against military bureaucracy or dictatorship in the guise of democracy, Dr Azad, with his iconoclastic views, has always stood out.

Though, teachers at the university have been divided along the line of their political allegiance, Dr Azad has kept a safe distance from both the BNP backed White and AL backed Blue factions. In fact, Latifa Kohinur, Dr Azad's wife, cannot remember him going to the polling booths, even, to vote for the general elections. Though everyone does not subscribe to his opinion, Dr Azad's writings have always generated much enthusiasm among the readers for his fierce criticism of the establishment. But through his candid statements on the political use of religion, the writer has certainly earned the wrath of a certain quarter.
Actually, according to Latifa, the writer used to receive phone calls "five or six years ago" that threatened to kill the linguist for writing "un-islamic" things. "I used to get phone calls five or six years ago…They would say, 'You will get Humayun Azad's corpse on the street… You will be a widow soon', and so on," Latifa says. But the threats suddenly stopped coming in one day.

Even after the publication of Pak Saar Jamin Saad Baad, the family members did not receive any such call, Latifa says. But she became anxious for her husband's safety when "a religious fundamentalist outfit called for Dr Azad's trial and the banning of Pak Saar Jamin Saad Baad ". That anxiety turned into fear after Sayeedi's infamous demand in the parliament.

Latifa couldn't hide her anger on the night of February 27 at the CMH. "Fundamentalists (zealots) have done this… Who else could do this? You know an MP even verbaly abused him in the parliament," she said. "Why didn't you take security measures to protect him after such an outrage in parliament?" Latifa asked Lutfuzzaman Babar, state minister for home, when he went to visit Dr Azad in hospital.

Though the police had claimed to have "cordoned off" the area immediately after the attack, the agitating students of Dhaka university, who had been demanding the home minister's resignation, recovered another blood soaked Chapati (chopping knife) from the spot on the following day.
The police, however, arrested Abbas, alias Boma Abbas, joint secretary of Sir AF Rahman Hall unit of Bangladesh Chatra League. "We have information about his presence near the spot before and after the incident. And there was a bomb explosion during the attack, he might be involved in the crime," Officer in Charge of Ramna Police Station Mahabubur Rahman said; Abbas has a history of bomb-making, the police officer alleged. The case was later handed over to the CID; and though the state minister for home has promised to give the case highest priority, the police are yet to unearth any motive behind the attack.

The attack on Dr Azad and the police's failure to nab the culprits have angered general people. The Dhaka University Teachers' Association has called an indefinite strike demanding the home minister's resignation. The anger turned into fury when armed hoodlums belonging to the Jatioyatabadi Chatra Dal (JCD), attacked peaceful procession of the general students on March 4. It is not clear, though, as to how a peaceful demonstration demanding the arrest of Dr Azad's killers can anger the ruling party's student wing.
To save its skin the government resorted to suspicious secrecy. When, immediately after the attack, the country held its breath to hear the latest condition of Dr Azad, the government even barred journalists from entering the CMH premises. It was an irregular, and in cases irresponsible, press-note of the Inter Service Public Relations that became the sole source of information for the anxious general people. The government's suspicious behaviour gave birth to a wide spread rumour of his death. Some government officials, when asked, came out with reports on his condition that were self-contradictory. Lately Azad's condition has, however, improved; and rumours died down when members of his family and Dr Azad's friends were allowed to visit him.

The attack on Dr Azad, in every sense, is shocking. Though religious fanatics have declared many writers and intellectuals as apostates, in fact, this is the first time in our history, that a writer was physically assaulted for his work. The attack, in front of Bangla Academy, one of the glorious products of our language movement, sends a chilling message to those who still believe in freethinking.

Everyone wanted to reap dividend from the attack on Dr Azad. While Dr Azad was fighting for life at the CMH, leaders of both the major political parities and intellectuals of their creeds kept themselves busy interpreting their own version of the event.

"I just want to see the man back home," says Latifa Kohinur. After 33 years of independence we cannot even be guaranteed security for our lives; forget free speech.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Heading Towards a Fascist State?

The government, faced by an opposition ultimatum to quit before April 30, has been resorting to indiscriminate arrest. According to an unofficial estimate, around 10,000 people, mostly innocent, have so far been arrested within days by the Home Ministry and its faithful. While sheer arrogance runs high in the ruling coalition; the question remains is, are we heading towards a fascist state?

The dingy custody room of Motijheel Police Station on April 23 resembled a Pakistani-era concentration camp. The air of the small room was filled with the agony and trauma of hundreds of citizens, mostly young men, arrested from different places of the city.

It was not any different elsewhere on the following day. Twenty-five policemen lined up outside the Kamlapur Railway Station (KRS) in two rows as Jayantika Expresse had just arrived from Sylhet. The team spotted Sujon, a student of Akhaura Degree College, walking about outside KRS, along with his cousin Pavel. Moments later both were arrested and hauled up to the van to be produced later to the court. By evening, some 1,000 youths were picked up from the railway stations, launch and bus terminals and different city points under the section 54.

The treatment is, however, quite different for a lucky few; police have been sparing the active members of the ruling party. A young activist of the Jatiatabadi Chatra Dal, student wing of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party BNP, was arrested, and later released after the police received a phone-call from the BNP high command. Encouraged by his release, a Daily Star (DS) reporter says, Sharif, a welder and one of the other picked up youths, begged for his release, saying he went to the railway station to pass his day-off at the KRS. “After hearing this, the police on duty took a sneaky look at me and said, ‘Don’t you have any other place to go?’”

The police have customarily been abusing the infamous Section 54 of Criminal Procedure, which allows the law enforcers to arrest practically anyone on suspicion. But this time, while the wholesale arrest goes on, the Police are violating a High Court order that says that the arrested must be produced before the court within 24 hours and their relatives be informed about the arrest. But, according to newspaper reports, none of these dictums are followed when police swing into indiscriminate arrests.

Advocate Sultana Kamal, executive director of Ain O Salish Kendro has termed police highhandedness as a gross violation of human rights, the constitution and the High Court ruling. But, to rub salt on the wounds of those who still believe in the rule of law, the court itself has violated the law when it has sentenced scores of people to a three-day imprisonment without the people arrested being produced before the court, a DS report says.

While the number of arrests has reached five figures, the government and its intelligentsia have so far remained unmistakably silent. The home ministry has not found it necessary to let us know the reasons for this mindless act of state terrorism. “We have nothing to do; we’re doing what our higher authorities have instructed us to do dutifully,” reasons a police officer, when being asked the reason for the indiscriminate arrests.

The mass arrest, however, has given the police a chance to make “a windfall in bribes”. Kahinur Begum, a private tutor, has told the DS how she was picked up and then later freed by the police in exchange of a bribe on April 21. “I was picked up from the Maghbazaar residence of an Awami League leader where I stay. I begged them for mercy. But they said they would only let me off if I paid them money. Even then I had to pay Tk 500 to get myself free,” she claims.

Kahinur’s is not the only case. The police even did not spare a 16-year-old, whom they had arrested on “suspicion” at the Airport Police Station that day. His brother had to bribe the officer on duty to get the boy free. The boy and his brother want to remain anonymous, fearing police reprisal.

Meanwhile, mindless arrests, in the name of so-called national security continue. The courts had worked into whole nights to convict those arrested on April 20 and 21. “The huge pressure of cases have dragged the procedures on, leaving the people waiting in the intense heat without food and water in cramped lockups,” a newspaper report says.

The arrested were also made to sit outside the court prison cells, which can only hold 96 persons, because of space constraints. The General Records section of the court prepared files against the people arrested without any documents. The authorities of the already crammed jail are struggling to accommodate the newcomers. With a capacity of 2500 inmates, the jail usually houses 10,000 prisoners, the report informs.

Commenting on such gross violations of human rights, Shadin Malik, a legal expert and rights activist, says, “Mass arrests at launch and bus terminals and other entry points into Dhaka indicate that they are not based on suspicion, but on arbitrary presumption.” He describes the arrests as illegal and unconstitutional.

The trauma through which thousands of innocent young men have been going will surely haunt them for the rest of their lives. Jewel, Fazal and Murad, three HSC examinees came to Dhaka for shopping when they were arrested on April 23. “Do you know brothers, what will be our fate? Our examinations will begin on May 11; will we be released before that or will we languish in jail?” Jewel asks.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Whose Arms are They Anyway?

While the country’s law and order has been deteriorating sharply, a huge cache of arms has been seized in Chittagong. According to Shubid Ali Bhuiyan, a retired Major General of Army, the retrieved arms and ammunition are almost equivalent to the ones of Comilla Division of the Bangladesh Army. “A regular battle can be fought with such amount of armoury,” he says. While the government and its intelligence remain as indifferent as ever, the recovery of weapons like assault rifles and rocket-launchers sends a chilling message to those who still believe in a happy and stable Bangladesh.

Rumours have been raging across the country as to the identity of the owners and the destinations of the weapons. Shocked and confused, the citizens have been asking themselves the fateful question, whose arms are they anyway?

The story began on April 1, at around 11:45, when a crane truck appeared on the jetty of the Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Factory (CUFF). The night of an otherwise silent state-owned jetty became noisy with sounds of around 150 porters offloading wooden boxes from two ships, MV Khawja and FT Amanat in a synchronised precision. Though the Chittagong Metropolitan Police (CMP) have claimed to have recovered the cache, largely credited to a tip-off from a foreign intelligence, Kazi Abu Tayeeb, the Ansar commander at the CUFF, has a different story to narrate.

According to Tayeeb, smugglers were offloading the largest ever arms cache recovered in the country with active “help from local police”. Tayeeb alleged 10 truckloads of arms were being offloaded in the presence of Karnaphuli Police Station’s Officer-in-Charge (OC) Ahadur Rahman, Sergeant Alauddin, Havilder Golam Rasul and Constable Mohiuddin. The crane truck, Tayeeb said to the national dailies, rammed into the vehicle of an Ansar member Minazur Rahman; heated altercations followed; and by this time a trawler moored to the jetty, two young men appeared, too, constantly talking on their cell phones. Minazur became suspicious.

“I rushed to the jetty after receiving a phone call from Minazur,” Tayeeb said. He in turn, according to newspaper reports, informed the incident to his boss, Mobin Hossain Khan, assistant security officer of CUFF. Mobin immediately sought help from the top officials at the CMP. In the meantime, Mobin went to the crime scene and demanded an explanation from OC Ahadur for what was going on in his presence. Ahadur in a show of indifference, asked Mobin if he would like to have some tea from the nearest tea-stall.
Tayeeb, Minazur and Mobin’s hard work, however, did not go in vain. A huge contingent of police led by the CMP Deputy Commissioner, Abdullahil Baki arrived before the early dawn of April 2. Interestingly, porters, along with two young men, were allowed to melt away in front of police reinforcement.
The recovery was huge--1, 290 SMGs, 100 Tommy guns, 400 semi-automatic spot Rifles, 150 rocket launchers with 40-mm barrels, 2000 grenade launchers, 840 rockets (40mm), 25,020 hand grenades, 6, 392 magazines of SMGs and 18,40 lakh bullets.

The colossal nature of the arms retrieved has shocked many. “The weapons hauled are generally used in classical wars against a regular army,” said Brigadier General (retd) Shahidul Anam Khan, a national security expert. “Bombs were exploded in some of the recent deadly incidents in the country such as the ones in at the Udichi’s cultural programme in Jessore and Bangla New Year’s celebration in Ramna Green in Dhaka,” Shahidul said. But, he continued, rockets or AK-47 rifles or Uzi submachine guns have never been used in any sort of terrorist activities here, he continued.

Major General Shubid Ali Bhuiyan agrees. He supports a long-standing allegation, which claims that huge caches of arms have regularly been smuggled to different South Asian insurgent groups through Bangladesh. “There is no big underground party in Bangladesh, which could possibly bring such a huge consignment of arms,” he says.

Meanwhile, on April 3, the police lodged two cases with the Karnaphulli Police Station (KPS) in connection with the arms haul. Interestingly, Ahadur Rahman, alleged to have linked with the gunrunners, has been made the plaintiff; if that is not all, the beleaguered OC of the KPS has been assigned as the investigative officer.

Bangladeshis are, in fact, no strangers to arms smuggling. A series of arms hauls in the last 10-years have made Bangladesh one of the safest places for arms smugglers in South Asia.
Actually subsequent governments have remained suspiciously indifferent in the face of an onslaught of allegations. In fact, last year, the General Manager (Admin) of the CUFF, ABM Nowsher, had asked the higher police authorities to take action against illegal berthing. “Apart from posing a serious threat to the security and safety of the port city, illegal berthing was also harming the jetty and the movement of vessels by blocking the river channel,” Nowsher wrote in a letter. Nothing has done to improve the situation; even after the general manager quite openly described it grave and a threat to national security.
It is a long list though. In June last year, the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) hauled a huge cache of arms, ammunition and high-frequency communications devices from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), which has a 172km porous border with neighbouring India.

The BDR, along with the army, later, seized another huge cache of arms and explosives in 10 hauls in the three districts of CHT. This time the armoury included antiaircraft machineguns, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, Chinese and US made AK-47, M-79, M-16 rifles and grenades.

The latest recovery in Chittagong dwarfed even the arms haul in Bogra; then dubbed as the biggest ever arms haul in independent Bangladesh. June 27 last year, the police retrieved over 1-lakh bullets and about 200kgs of explosives from an abandoned truck in a remote village. The truck-owner, Jogesh Dev Burman--allegedly closely associated with the Tripura Co-operative Association--was later arrested in a forest in Habiganj.

The incidents of arms recovery, however, continued. November 30 last year, four AK-47 rifles, two revolvers, 20 hand grenades, four time bombs, 1,000 AK-47 bullets, 2kg plastic explosives and sophisticated walkie-talkies were recovered after a gunfight with a criminal outfit in Dhaka, near the US Embassy Building.

In fact several police reports indicate that illegal arms are regularly being smuggled in through the Chittagong port. At least 37 illegal arms-smuggling syndicates are active in the region, a police report mentions.

An Arakan rebel, known by the pseudonym Selim, was arrested in Chittagong in mid-2000. In his confessional statement Selim admitted his involvement in gunrunning; “Arms from Thai and Burmese insurgents are smuggled into Bangladesh through Chittagong and the CHT. These are then sold out in the underground market,” he said.

Major General (retired) Ibrahim, a security expert, has more to add. “The sources and destinations of the smugglers are not clear. But this is an old story that Bangladesh is being used as a transit point for its geographical location,” the former army-man tells the United News of Bangladesh. “Because of the political instability over the years; and the government’s failure to give enough attention to the issue, the arms smugglers have gained enough courage,” Ibrahim says. For us the statement spells a national security nightmare.