Monday, August 18, 2008

United We Stand

Saarc leadership must show brinkmanship to make the region an economic powerhouse

While its counterparts in Europe, the Far East and Africa have made viable economic unions, South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc), which is going to celebrate its 23rd birthday this year, eerily resembles a paper tiger. Though the regional forum has a total landmass of 5,130,746 square kilometres, making it the seventh biggest region in the world, the eight countries of Saarc, which share the same culture and history, have not been able to come close enough to form a Union. Bilateral disputes are rampant, so much so that they at times taint the spirit of co-operation of the organisation.

The summit meeting of the Saarc that has ended in Colombo last week has taken some steps to bring the gap that exists between its members. The Colombo declaration has rightly incorporated two important issues that its leaders have said Saarc will handle--the creation of a food bank or expressing the desire to fight terrorism together.

The question that, however, remains unresolved is the challenge of translating the resolves into results. History tells us that the Saarc has been one of the most poverty-stricken regional groupings in the region despite the fact that its Gross Domestic Product is the 4th biggest in the world; from Kabul to Kolkata one comes across an army of poor, most of whom do not even earn two meals a day. This has been exacerbated by violence and extremism of a different hue that South Asia is littered with. Poverty breeds terrorism, and it is no wonder that the region has witnessed so many terrorist attacks in the last couple of decades. The biggest impediment to self-reliance is perhaps the air of mistrust that the leaders of the group are dogged with. While it is well connected by air to Europe, up until this year there has been no direct flight link between Dhaka and Colombo. An Indian may get a visa to a European country without any hassle, but to get a Pakistani one she will face a wave of difficulties, the rejection rate, it is said that, is an all-time.

Trade barriers are yet to be removed. Footballs made in any western country may be as easily available in Bangladesh as a slab of molasses, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to get one made in Sialkot, which is famous across the globe for producing fine quality footballs. So, economy suffers, and in spite of an economic boom that South Asia has seen in the last couple of decades the number of poor is increasing fast.

To begin with, the leaders of the association should think beyond and start the process of forming a South Asian Union à la EU. A common passport can be introduced, and more importantly, interconnectivity, of all forms, should be thought of to foster development and increase people to people contact. For the Far Eastern countries, South Asia can become the gateway to Central Asia; Nepal and Bhutan can take benefit of the Chittagong Port. A rail and land route can be laid down to connect all the big South Asian cities.

Sharing of energy and water resources is also a must for the region's growth. The countries have to open up their borders and markets to each other for the common good. The regional leaders must not forget that the only way to slay the two-headed monster of poverty and terrorism is through economic development and social connectivity. The Saarc has a long way to go to achieve a poverty-free developed South Asia, the path to South Asian Union is slippery, there are risks at its every turn, but the risks are worth taking for the 1.5 billion South Asian definitely deserve a better future.

Bangladesh's Unfinished Revolution

With the general elections in the offing, the demand for trying the war criminals is gaining momentum

The trial of those who actively opposed Bangladesh's liberation by taking up arms to fight for the occupying Pakistani army has been one of the unfinished legacies of our history. In 1971, Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim League and the Nejam-e-Islami -- formed different paramilitary groups such as Shanti Committee, Razakar Bahini, Al Badr and Al Shams that killed hundreds and thousands of innocent Bangalis and raped hundreds. Siddiq Salik, who was serving the Pakistan army as a major in Bangladesh in 1971, in his book 'Witness to Surrender' recounts, (TheDaily Star, 2007-10-28) “The only people who came forward (to help the Pakistani army butcher and rape innocent people) were 'the rightists like Khwaza Khairuddin of the Council Muslim League, Fazlul Qader Chaudhry of the Convention Muslim League, Khan Sobur A Khan of the Qayyum Muslim League, Professor Ghulam Azam of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Maulvi Farid Ahmed of the Nizam-i-Islam Party.”

The Al Badr is thought to be behind the massacre of the intellectuals on December 14, 1971 when a hundred intellectuals were picked up to be slaughtered. As the newspapers suggest, the top leadership of the Jamaat has been involved in the rape and killing during the war of liberation, and the party was banned immediately after the country's independence. In fact, the process of trying the war criminals has started as early as January 24, 1972 when the Collaborator's Act was promulgated. Lieutenant General (rtd) M Harun-Ar-Rashid, a valiant freedom fighter and former chief of Bangladesh army recalls: “The act was later changed twice to make the process easier. By October 1973, over 37, 000 collaborators were arrested.” Contrary to the misconception that all the war criminals have been pardoned, he says, “That year a general amnesty was declared in which the accused against whom there was no clear evidence of killing, rape and arson were given clemency. There was this clause that even those who were pardoned if new allegations of killing, rape and arson turned up against them they could be tried.”

There were 11,000 prisoners against whom there was clear evidence of killing, rape and arson. By December 31, the trials of 752 war criminals were finished, even death penalties were handed down, and one war criminal walked the gallows. Actually, the first death penalty that has been executed in the history of Bangladesh is in fact that of a war criminal.

The situation turned upside down after the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. “In December that year, the Collaborator's Act was repelled and the trial and investigation process was stopped. Even those who had been punished were freed. The Fifth Amendment of the constitution ratified it. When democracy was established in 1991, a movement was launched to try the war criminals; a people's investigative commission was later formed under the leadership of Sufia Kamal,” Harun says.

Harun coordinates the Sector Commanders' Forum (SCF) that has brought the long-standing trial of the war criminals to the fore. This year the organisation has held a convention in which the demand was raised. It is significant for the caretaker government has launched a war on corruption and is set on reforming the country's politics. Many like Harun believe the government should form a commission to start the trial of war criminals. Harun says, “Corruption is related to the looting properties of the state and its citizens. War crime is an even bigger crime for it is done against the state. If a society that allows the war criminals to roam around free for so many years, it is not at all surprising that such a society will become a breeding ground for criminals. Until we are able to try the war criminals, anarchy and lawless will remain pervasive in our country. Moreover, those who have been affected during the Liberation war, those who have been raped, killed or lost their property, have suffered because of the birth of this state. We are now the members of the army of a nation or the journalists of an independent country, and those who have sacrificed their lives or suffered for the birth of the country, we have some responsibilities towards their souls. The most important thing is, it makes no sense at all that we will try the petty criminals, and form different bodies to try the corrupt whereas we do not want to do anything against those who have actively opposed the independence of this state.”

The Chief Adviser of the current Caretaker Government has already termed the participation of the war criminals in the next general election unacceptable. The current chief of the army has also supported the move of bringing the war criminals to justice. Air Vice Marshall (rtd) AK Khandker, former air chief and the deputy supreme commander of the Muktijuddo also thinks that as “We are going through a very important phase of our national life, and from that point of view the coming elections at various levels are going to be of tremendous importance. “ Khandhker, also chief of the SCF thinks that only honest, able and patriotic people should come through the elections. “We want those who committed crimes during the liberation war and those who opposed the very independence of our country to be barred from participating in the election. It is the expectation of the entire nation that the present government starts the process of trying the war criminals and also bar those who opposed the independence of our country, from all elections,” he says.

It is high time that the government sets up a fact-finding commission to probe into the war crimes of 1971. Our new journey towards a bright democratic future will lose its proper direction if war criminals make it into the next parliament.

A Home for Literature

In an interview, Richard Logsdon, editor of Red Rock Review talks about his work

What are the ideas behind your journal?
Many ideas have shaped Red Rock Review. First and foremost was the intention to publish the very best poetry and fiction available. This stated intention, while a bit generic (What journal doesn't try to publish the best of the available literature?), helped us establish a very high standard for writers who wished their works to be considered for inclusion in Red Rock Review. (The stated intention, too, gave us the right to reject local writers who felt some sort of entitlement to get published by a Las Vegas journal.) Vague as the guideline sounds, we did succeed in attracting works by very good writers by as early as the second issue Ron Carlson and Alberto Rios come to mind and from then on the quality of our submissions skyrocketed. Beyond this, in setting a lofty standard for our magazine, we contributed to the on-going cultural redefinition of a community Las Vegas that is notorious for creating its own decadent art as a standard of perfection.

But we had something else in mind another idea when we started our journal. Twelve years ago, when we published the first issue of Red Rock Review, Las Vegas was in the midst of a crisis of identity. The city couldn't decide who or what it is: fighting against the desire to become a more or less normal city was Las Vegas's notorious gangsterish past (Something some locals still try to deny). Red Rock Review took advantage of this cultural identity crisis, launching a journal whose works rivaled those in the very best journals in the country and that indicated to the public at large that Las Vegas had a serious interest in taking on an identity that would include a genuine love of the arts. By the way, I don't think that Las Vegas will ever resolve its identity crisis but that makes the city a fascinating place to live.

Along with the desire to help reshape the city's image was the desire to give our college Red Rock Review is published under the auspices of the College of Southern Nevada something of cultural worth.

While making an editorial decision, what do you look for in a write-up?
I'd like to say that we're open to all kinds of literature, but that may not necessarily be true. As far as fiction is concerned, we're generally drawn to well crafted stories that are built around a conflict that provides the moral centre to the piece. Accordingly, the plots of the stories that we accept for publication are generally character-driven. Two, we look for full development of character and situation. Of course, there are exceptions: occasionally we'll accept a story that takes liberties with the conventions of story telling and that may fall into the post-modern category. Still, I think as far as short fiction is concerned, the editorial staff of Red Rock Review is pretty traditional.

As for poetry, while we're certainly interested in well-crafted pieces, we're just as interested in different voices, in poems that provide a fresh perspective of something very familiar. To provide an example, I'm currently working on a review of local writer Jarret Keene's latest collection of poems, A Boy's Guide to Arson (Zeitgeist Press, 2008).

How important do you think it is for a writer to know her audience/reader?
It's almost impossible to answer this question, which I shall nonetheless try to take in a couple of directions. For one thing, the question suggests that the writer's knowledge of his/her audience has something to do with the content and success of the submitted work. We run into problems here. Heightened awareness of the audience's needs may lead to a hyper-consciousness that has its parallel in the narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. You may recall that the narrator referred to hyper-consciousness as a disease. The narrator's propensity to think too much about others, about himself leads to a kind of inertia, a kind of paralysis, and I think the same may happen with the writer whose acute awareness of his /her audience stifles the creativity, leads the writer to compromise his/her vision, and results in a watered down version of what the writer originally intended. Keep in mind, however, that I am not suggesting that a knowledge of audience is not important for the writer. Your question is so open that it leads me to other speculation. To get to my second point, it could be argued that the writer creates his audiencejust as the audience may help shape the writer. Several years back, I recall reading some essays by Umberto Eco, who made the rather intriguing point that the writer, while aware of the audience, creates with the very act of writing a unique voice that, in turn, actually shapes the audience. I like the point Eco made, because he touched upon the existence of an on-going dynamic between writer and audience, neither one of which was necessarily fixed in place.

Do you think every novelist writes history, both at a personal and a social level?
What you're asking, I think, is to what extent the novelist engages in the writing of history, both on a personal and social level. It's a difficult question and calls for a moving away from the traditional concept of history as a body of writing distinct from the world of fiction and an acceptance of the fact that the writer of fiction can somehow participate in the writing of history. Clearly, the Bengali writer Ahmed Faruk writes a very personal fiction that can be fully understood only within the context of socio-political realities. In his case, the personal and the socio-political become almost one and the same. The question, however, is not merely applicable to contemporaries who write within and about a volatile socio-political situation. I'm thinking of Tolstoy's War and Peace (You see what a traditionalist I am.), which is about several characters' participation in the Napoleonic Wars. In the case of this magnificent novel, the personal cannot really be separated from the social/political/historical dimension that constitutes actual reality of the novel. In fact, doesn't Tolstoy end with a lengthy section in which he argues, among other things, that in the case of his novel the fictional, both on a personal and social level, becomes one with the historical?

But then again, the question may be more applicable to those writers whose fiction compliments or illuminates the volatile social and historical realities of their particular countries. If this is so, then the question may have little to do with those Western writers who, composing from a safe place, do not think of their characters and novels as somehow reflective of larger social/political/historical realities. Of course, even as I write this, I can think of a glaring exception to my implied generality concerning Western writers.

Do you think the world has become a dangerous place in which to live?
One would think that globalisation would have succeeded in making the world a lot less dangerous, a lot less hostile, that inventions like the Internet and cell phones would have dissolved the barriers of hostility separating people. How very naïve. While barriers do come down, new problems emerge: Internet predators, identity theft, global terrorism, etc.

But let's not ignore the larger and more obvious question: when has the world not been a dangerous place to live? History shows the world embroiled in a never-ending series of conflicts. Sometimes the conflicts are civil, sometimes national with country pitted against country. Sometimes -- perhaps most often -- it's the good guys vs. the bad guys. Of course, I'm over-simplifying -- and I'm writing from a place (Las Vegas, Nevada) where the security that I enjoy is balanced against city crime that includes shootings -- in the high schools, on the streets, in the casinos -- are not a rare event. Even so, I recognise that far more dangerous places exist than Las Vegas. Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Israel come to mind as examples of such places. Too, the ever-present threat of terrorism can make even an Idaho farmer a bit edgy.

But then, again, I don't think the question necessarily requires an answer that categorises countries/regions on the basis of danger. The question concerns the world and brings to my mind the famous poem “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon does not hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold etc. etc.

We all inhabit the same planet, and all will be somehow touched by those smaller and larger apocalyptic events that occur throughout history. Not that we're heading towards some kind of Armageddon. I'm not suggesting that we're creeping towards the end times even though I do admit that the U.S. has so embroiled itself in the politics and warfare of the Middle East that it's sometimes difficult not to imagine that we're headed toward something of cataclysmic proportions. (Of course, the same thinking, that we're all headed toward an international showdown, characterised the Cold War; when I was growing up, the question was not if but when the United States was going to war against the Soviet Union?)

Great Expectations

Known as Mr Cool, Finance Adviser AB Mirza Azizul Islam has proposed a budget of Tk 99, 962 crore, with Tk 16, 932 crore for social safety net, Tk 13, 648 crore for subsidies and Tk 10, 253 crore for salaries of teachers and doctors. What he does not explain is how he is going to do the most difficult of jobs--getting enough money to fund the most ambitious budget in the country's history.

This year's proposed budget very rightly tries to address three important areas of the country's fledgling economy: rising inflation, a slump in growth and generation of employment. It has indeed been of outmost importance for the world economy is going through a supply shock, especially at a time when inflation is spiralling out of control and economic growth has been stuck at 6 percent. To make it even worse, the country has gone through three natural disasters in a year--two floods and a cyclone. It is indeed surprising that the last fiscal year has experienced a growth of 6.21 percent, and it can fairly be said that it will circle around 6 unless and until new investments are made and employment is created.

The Finance Adviser has been trying his best to give an impetus to the farm sector through Tk 540 crore diesel subsidies, promising Tk 272 crore more for agriculture extension and research. The success of this budget will largely depend on how the sector reacts to it. In an economy of over $60 billion, agriculture is the driving force, if properly tended it will create employment and will be able to take the ongoing food crisis by the horns.

Even though agricultural employment is expected to increase, there is no prospect of it being replicated in its industrial counterpart. The Small and Medium Enterprises, which, if properly assisted, can generate growth in the country, has not been given the attention they deserve. That the Finance Adviser has shown no ways to generate power is not going to help the industries in any way. The energy sector has indeed got a raw deal. State-run exploration company Bapex has been given Tk 3, 200 crore for exploration in the next seven years, but the Finance Adviser has shown no light when it comes to generation of new sources of energy. He has said that the government will shortly declare a new coal policy and further explorations of the country's oil and gas resources are in the offing, but the speech does not give any direction as to how to grapple with the current energy crisis except for mentioning the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency has proposed to give support to the Rooppur Power Generation Plant. Given that the demand power is going to increase to 5, 569 MW this year, industry will be hit the hardest if new sources of power are not created. The government's performance has so far been dismal when it comes to energy for only 124 MW has been generated in the last fiscal year.

This budget will not please the middle class for the Vat on private English medium schools has not been withdrawn and an increase of custom duty to 25 percent from 10 will make it even worse. Rising cost of essentials coupled with an impending increase in the price of fuel is going to make life difficult for them.

This budget tries to highlight the soft side of capitalism by introducing the first ever employment guarantee scheme, which will create 20 crore working days for 20, 00, 000 unemployed poor by giving them 'guaranteed' work. In fact, the social safety net has been widened by 48 percent, which is going to be 2.8 percent of the GDP.

The Finance Adviser here undoubtedly faces a dilemma. The proposed budget, huge that it is, means that a large deficit of Tk 30, 580, will translate into an 86 percent increase in bank borrowing, which runs the risks of drying out credit for the private sector which the adviser expects to increase to 22.6 percent. The adviser says that the borrowed money is going to be injected domestically, making a positive impact on the overall economy. But that remains an untested hypothesis. The revenue target of Tk 69, 362 crore remains less ambitious, if one takes into consideration the growth of the GDP. More direct tax, in fact, is needed; it will also narrow the gap between the rich and the poor a little. The stakes, actually, are even higher. If government borrowing continues like this macroeconomic stability will come under threat. On top of it all, more government spending will fuel inflation, which he wants to keep at a tolerable rate of 9 percent. Add to that a rising food inflation, about which the adviser has very little to say. Only time can tell how he is going to keep the balance, tricky that it is.

The corporate tax rates for listed and non-listed companies, however, have been reduced to patronise industrial investment. The budget also proposes a three-year tax exemption on incomes made out of computers, software and data processing, which will give a boost to the country's ITC sector.

A smaller ADP will harm growth, making the much-appreciated social safety net programme ineffective. It will turn into a tragedy if even this smaller ADP is not properly utilised, growth will be harmed and rural employment will be affected.

While scrutinising our Chancellor of Exchequer's speech one must keep this in mind that, like the government whose finance adviser he is, this is an interim budget. A new government is going to come into office at the beginning of next year, which has to shoulder the responsibilities of implementing this budget. Despite its drawbacks, given a recession-like scenario in the global economy, we, probably, would not have got a better budget than this. The uphill tasks remain in implementing this budget, keeping bank borrowing and inflation at a minimum level. A stable political situation will help to attract local and foreign investments, which, for its turn, will foster growth.

This article was first published in the June 20, 2008 issue of The Star magazine

Where the Big Fish Lie

What is Cutbank about?
Well, the simple answer is that the only idea is to publish quality writing. Writing that deserves to be read, but may not find a market outside of the literary press.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. CutBank will celebrate its thirty-fifth anniversary this year. When we were founded in 1973 (by graduate students at the University of Montana and essayist/novelist William Kittredge), the literary landscape in the U.S. was pretty different. Montana had one of only a handful of creative writing graduate programmes in the country, and the literary magazine market was considerably smaller. Today, Master of Fine Arts programmes in creative writing have sprung up like mushrooms after the rain, and almost all of them publish a literary magazine.

The result of that is a lot more work being published, presumably a lot more quality work, though I think in some ways we now have a much bigger rough from which to pluck the diamonds. The further result is that any given literary magazine has a smaller audience, and it becomes more difficult to differentiate yourself from the pack.

Some lit mags --- Ninth Letter comes to mind and also McSweeney's --- set themselves apart with graphic content and design. Which I'm actually very fond of, and I'd like to see CutBank move in that direction in the future. Short of an approach like that, though, I think the obligation is to sort of develop a distinct voice, a distinct aesthetic.

In the last few years, CutBank's aesthetic has, I think, leaned away from the traditional and towards a slightly more experimental writing, in both our poetry and our prose. The phrase I like to use is that we encourage the rejection of functional fixedness --- which is the psychological concept that tells us an object is only good for one thing, that a hammer is only good for pounding nails, etc. We like to publish work that shows interesting things being done with words.

But along with that, I think we've embraced a very slight regional bias in the last few years, and that's an okay thing, too. The American West is still a distinct literary zone, and though I think the writing we publish is a little too unorthodox to really come out of the saloon doors wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson, I like the idea that you can flip through the magazine and, if you're listening very closely, maybe hear a slight jingling of spurs.

While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?
To be very honest, I mostly push paper around. We have a rotating staff of six genre editors (two for poetry, two for fiction, two for nonfiction) that make most of the decisions on content. With the help, of course, of a small staff of readers and assistant editors. The "functional fixedness" line comes to mind again, though. In any genre, I think we're enticed by a writer who shows a mastery of the language, then a willingness to do build something beautiful with it, maybe beautiful and a little strange. Voice is a big deal for us. An elegantly written short story, however well-plotted or well-paced, will likely fall flat with us if its not delivered in a tone or using a vocabulary that challenges us somehow.

Do you think it is important for a writer to know her audience/reader?
I suppose the importance varies based on what you're writing. On the one hand, there are probably circumstances where a writer can finish a short story, page through their Writers Market for addresses, and send the same piece out to ten or fifteen different lit mags. And have a reasonably good shot with any of them. That being said, it's a pretty safe bet that an essay that works very well for CutBank wouldn't be right for, say, the Virginia Quarterly Review and vice-versa. VQR is a great journal, but a lot of their nonfiction tends to be topical and a tad journalistic. Personally, this is some of my favourite nonfiction. But CutBank's nonfiction pages have a more personal, story-driven emphasis.

When you're outside of the sphere of literary journals, it's a different ballgame entirely, I suppose. I do some writing for music magazines and, at the moment, I'm finishing up a sort of literate guidebook for a travel publisher. In one case I'm writing for a youngish hipster crowd and in the other for a more affluent group of travellers. You have to use two different voices in an instance like that, and to confuse your two audiences would be a mistake.

Do you think every novelist writes history, both at a personal and a social level?
Sure, I suppose so. As a nonfiction writer, I'm sort of immersed in a scene where no one makes any bones about writing from experience. My thinking, though, is that any piece of writing in any genre serves to presence its author in some fashion --- any piece worth reading, anyway. So in that sense, I don't know how any author could ever entirely divorce their personal history from a writing project. And why would you want to, really? Where the "social level" is concerned, I guess I'm not convinced that the distinction between personal history and social history isn't a false one. So the same principle applies. Show me a story that was written from a place outside of social history, and I guess I'll tell you if it's any good.

Do you think the world has become a dangerous place in which to live?
Compared to the Garden of Eden? Perhaps. Beyond that -- dangerous for whom, I would ask? Lately I've spent a lot of time in Yellowstone National Park, which is just south of us here in Missoula, some two million acres of wilderness. And I've been talking to a few naturalists, learning a few things. Is the world more dangerous for us than it is for an elk calf in the spring, when the wolves are skirting the herds in hopes of an easy lunch? More dangerous for us than for the cutthroat trout who have to evade a grizzly's swiping paws just so they might spawn? I don't know. But then, who ever said it was supposed to be less dangerous for us? I think we have it pretty good, all things considered.

Rebels without a Cause

Student politics, which has a glorious history of leading the nation towards independence, has become hostage to corruption and thuggery

During the fifties and sixties, the students, in the absence of a vigorous labour movement, have led the country's politics. Our history is littered with such examples: the victory of secular United Front in the general elections of 1954 that has kicked the Muslim League out of the political landscape of East Pakistan and, a better example perhaps, is the mass upsurge of 1969, when a wave of nationalism has torn the castle of military dictator Ayub Khan's castle into pieces. In fact, till 1980's the student politics have provided the national politics with great leaders who, when met with the challenge with time, has shown brinkmanship, charisma and leadership quality. Most of the leaders of national politics who make news nowadays are, in fact, the product of the student movements of pre and post independent era. From Matia Chowdhury to Mahmuduur Rahman Manna, Mujahidul Islam Selim to Rizvi Ahmed, student politics has gifted us with leaders whom no dictator can buy, who, time and again, have upheld their principles. In fact, during Bangladesh's independence war, students have worked as vanguards, kindling the light of hope in an abyss of darkness. During the anti-autocracy movement of the nineties, the student organisations, most of which had a left lenience, have shown resolve and unity to fight an amalgam of enemies: religious fanaticism at home and global capitalism abroad.

It has started to go wrong after the fall of Gen HM Ershad in 1990. The leaders of the mass upsurge, most of whom have been students, have quickly sold their souls to the devil. Amanullah Aman, the then VP of Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU), at that time married and the father of a grown-up, has become a Member of the Parliament (MP). Many student leaders have followed suit, a few thousands like him have quickly become millionaires. Student politics, as far as Aman's success story has proven, is like a long-term investment: it yields at maturity. In fact, Bangladesh's student politics is a textbook example of what happens when politics takes a back seat and is controlled by god-father-like national politicians. The degeneration that has been slow during the military dictatorship of the eighties has spread fast in the early and mid nineties. Student politicians have become more interested in winning government tenders than bringing out street processions for better educational facilities. While the price of pen and paper skyrocketed in the mid nineties, two different factions of the government-backed student organisation have found themselves in an hour-long armed conflict over a tender of the Roads and Highways Department.

The situation is even worse at the district levels. In the absence of proper politics, local MPs and leaders of the district ruling party call the shots. Their wishes remain command for local student politicians, who become mere bullyboys of the local leaders. The politics of violent confrontation and relentless corruption that we have witnessed in the last couple of decades have given birth to the most notorious of criminals who lead the two big student organisations. These young people go to the rallies, cheering for one Begum or the other, and to fund their insatiable greed they indulge themselves in criminal activities. From extortions to killing, the long hands of some student leaders are extended everywhere.

Most educational institutes, especially at the tertiary level, do not have adequate seats at the dormitories that they have. A large number of these dormitories, if not all of them, are always controlled by the government-backed student organisation; they recruit the ordinary students by luring them with seats in the hostels; armed goons guard them; gunfight between armed student factions becomes the order of the day. The soul of our future national politics becomes the breeding ground for thugs and goons. Development suffers, education remains in the hands of a selected few who can afford to go abroad to further their studies.

What ails the education sector the most is indeed corrupt student politics. But the government cannot escape the blame: since independence, subsequent governments have never prioritised education. New private universities are set up, where education is sold at Tk 4 lakh a degree, where class rooms are of ten feet by ten feet, where universities do not have an administrative building of their own, let alone a proper laboratory for science students. Some private universities in the capital have even had ready-made garment factories on the upper floors. While basic education is going far beyond the means of the millions and the government plays the role of an apathetic bystander, an army of unemployed are entering the job market with little skill to meet the growing demand of a burgeoning economy. Thus the poor remain poor; living outside the paradigm of power. The economy of $60 billion has also had around 19 lakh young unemployed men, the amount is mammoth when one considers the fact that there is a staggering 2 crore 65 lakh 85 thousand underemployed young men and women, some of these join one of the big student or youth organisations, which thrive on corruption and misrule. As the country's squabbling politicians ignore the plight of the toiling masses, the poor and the marginalised do not have any other way to make their voices heard but translate their frustrations and grievances into angst. These unemployed youth give the national politicians the much-needed fuel in the general elections or at any other desperate moments.

The picture is indeed less than perfect for those who want to find the inner thread of the occasional bouts of violence that rule the streets of our cities at the slightest whiff of discontent. An overhaul of our economic policy is the order of the day; it needs to be made pro-people, pro-poor to be precise. It is the responsibility of the government to educate its own citizens, more public schools and universities must be set up, education has to be made absolutely free till the tertiary level. Private universities have to be forced to give scholarships for the poor students, especially those who hail from poverty-stricken areas. Vocational training and secretarial courses have to be incorporated into the secondary and higher secondary education system, so that the dropouts can get a decent job after passing these public exams. Sending skilled and semi-skilled workers is one of the thriving sectors of our economy; our primary and secondary education must go through a change so that we can have our share in the growing labour market of North and Eastern Europe.

A moratorium for a year or two must be imposed on politics on the campus. It means feuding student politicians and politicised teachers will have to learn to think and act independently. Meanwhile, the political parties must stop using students as cannon fodder. The Election Commission has to enact electoral laws that will discourage the parties from having student fronts. Students studying at different public and private educational institutions will have to be given student housing, enrolment must be based on merit alone. Students are the future of our nation, they are the nation builders of tomorrow; our future as a developed nation depends largely on how we mould them to face the challenge of the new millennium. The Private University Act has remained only on paper-- the University Grants Commission must take stringent measures to enforce it. Any private educational institute who fails to follow it must be punished. A ceiling on fees on private universities needs to be fixed. Elections to the student bodies of all educational institutions must be held on a regular basis.

The reason why we talk of democracy in every breath we take and do not practice it in everyday life is because the very concept of justice and equality is not engrained in our society. The students have to be taught about democracy from an early age, and schools, colleges and universities are the places where they will learn to practice democracy to lead the nation to the path of progress and development. A bleak future awaits us if we fail to save our children from the clutches of corrupt moribund politics. Our future as a developed economically independent nation is entwined with the way we reshape the face of student politics.

This article was first published in the June 27, 2008 issue of The Star Magazine

The Heart of Literature

In an interview with Ahmede Hussain, James Engelhardt, Managing Editor of
Prairie Schooner, University of Nebraska-Lincoln talks about
his life as an editor.

What are the ideas behind your journal?

The idea we hold closest to us is that we're here to serve writers. Going back a ways, Prairie Schooner was founded in 1926 with the idea of representing Nebraska to the world while bringing the world to Nebraska. We have developed into a journal of international scope that strives to publish the very best work from new and established authors. Because our senior genre readers (in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction) change every few years, our interests are able to evolve. Those genre readers change because we're part of the creative writing PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (very close to the middle of the country), which is one part of the very supportive English Department. An important aspect of what we do is to involve very active, very knowledgeable graduate students in the production of the magazine. We rely on their keen sense of aesthetics and wide-ranging interests. And, because they come from all over the country and the world, we find new, interesting, vibrant writers.

While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?
This is a difficult question to answer, but, like many editors, I will say that we're looking for writing that grabs us. Certainly, competency with language is the start, the first floor, the bottom line, but beyond that? The story should grab us with the first page, if the not the first paragraph, and the same holds true for a non-fiction piece. A poem should demand our attention with the first stanza. And then something beyond the mechanics of language, beyond the sparkling opening, should make us take notice as well. The premise, the idea, should make us understand something we haven't thought about. The piece should move us to think about the world, other people, experience beyond ourselves.

As far as topics go, we're voracious and omnivorous. We will get queries from time to time from people wanting to know if anything is taboo for us. The short answer is no. The long answer is that we don't want anything badly written, that's dull, that's too familiar, or that lacks an emotional resonance that reminds us of the struggles, joys and pains of being human in the world.

How important do you think it is for a writer to know his/her audience/reader?
I think it's both hugely important and entirely unknowable. You might, after a while, know who's reading your pieces, but who knows that starting out? And most of our writers, even now, don't have an audience that's large enough for the writer to know their buying habits, or even simply to hear from anyone. On the one hand, this is a great blessing. You can say anything! Be true to your own vision and see what happens. On the other hand, it is easy to form literary cliques with like-minded people, and then a certain conformity can take place. Thinking about an audience can help you push beyond your close friends.

I like the practice of imagining who your ideal reader is and then writing to them. Imagining an audience is useful, I think, but imagining that they might be criticizing every word you put down would not.

Do you think every novelist writes history, both at a personal and a social level? Question4: It will better if we go with it. It will be interesting to see how you see the issue as an editor. If you wish, I can change it.

I'm not a novelist, but every novelist lives, or has lived, in a particular time and place. The concerns of the era are in those books, but we must understand that those concerns might be expressed as a kind of negative; that is, they might be what the artist is struggling against. We don't publish novels, or very many novel excerpts, so I'm a bit unsure how to approach the topic. I think the time of the author resonates through their material, but to say that this is “writing history” seems a much larger claim, and one I'm not entirely comfortable with endorsing.

Do you think the world has become a dangerous place -- to live in?
Compared to when? There are clearly more people, so the incident of violence is greater, but per capita? I don't know. Maybe it's more dangerous because of knowledge, or how easily knowledge is distorted, but even there I'm not sure that our propaganda is any less insidious than propaganda from the past. Is life more “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” than it was when that line was written? I hardly think so.

And here's where literature helps: while humans and their inhumanity might be very similar over time, the circumstances change. There are new and different exploitations, and the raw numbers larger, so the stories that we tell change, even as the concerns at the core remain the same. That is, greed remains greed. But literature helps us to speak back, to reveal our crises and terrors. Do we learn from this? Will others learn from this? Ah, that's another question, the answer to which doesn't often leave me feeling optimistic.

The Original Sin

The government must form a commission to probe into the war crimes of 1971

During Bangladesh's liberation war three million people died, one-third of the country's population was displaced, 200,000 women were raped and hundreds and thousands were maimed. The occupying Pakistani army, which started the butchering in the name of Operation Searchlight on the gory night of March 25, 1971, took help from its local collaborators by forming several paramilitary groups such as the Peace Committee, Razakar, Al Badr and Al Shams. Formed by members of Jamaat-e-Islam, Nezam-e-Islam Party and the Muslim League, these groups unleashed a reign of terror during the Muktijudho by picking up innocent Bangladeshis and handing them over to the Pakistani army or forcing women into sexual slavery in the camps of the Pakistanis. Memories are still fresh and the copies of newspapers printed during that time are littered with evidence of war crimes. Hundreds of mass graves have been discovered in which the bodies of innocent civilians were dumped by the collaborators of the Pakistani army.

The trial of these killers and rapists started soon after independence, some of these vile people were arrested, most of the leaders of Jamaat, Nezam-e-Islam and Muslim League, which were banned, were either on the run or had fled the country. A Razakar (collaborator) was executed for killing.

The process was stopped in 1975 when a string of bloody coups witnessed the murder of the country's founding fathers. A known supporter of the Pakistani army was made the Prime Minister, the killers and rapists were set free, and infamous Razakars, Al Badrs and Al Shams members like Khan A Sabur, Golam Azam, Matiur Rahman Nizami, Ali Ahsan Mojahed, were allowed to form political parties again in 1978. These notorious criminals have been allowed to spread their tentacles by the subsequent governments, the most shameless example has been in 2001 when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, founded by a valiant freedom fighter Major General Ziaur Rahman, formed an electoral alliance with the Jamaat, a party that actively opposed Bangladesh's independence. The alliance, after it won the elections, has made two known collaborators of the Pakistani army, ministers. Nizami, who headed the Al Badr paramilitary in 1971, which killed teachers, writers, doctors and journalists on December 14, 1971, has become a minister of Bangladesh, the birth of which he was opposed to less than four decades ago.

Jamaat or the Razakars-Al Badr-Al Shams have never apologised for the war crimes its members have commited or the criminal activities it has been involved in as a political entity in 1971. On the contrary, the party and its leaders have always held the view that no war crime has ever taken place in 1971. A few months ago the Acting Secretary General of the party has told journalists that there were no war criminals in the country and another stooge of the party Shah Hannan has called Bangladesh's war of independence a mere civil war. A freedom fighter has been assaulted this month at a programme organised by the Jamaat supporters. These people had the audacity to set up a fake 'Muktijudho Parishad' that claims to be for the welfare of the Muktijudhos which did not stop the organisers from humiliating a freedom fighter who had demanded that war criminals be punished.

The necessity for the trial of the killers and rapists of 1971 has always been the demand of the people of this country. It has especially gained momentum since the current caretaker government assumed power on January 11 last year and has declared to reform the country's politics. Hordes of suspected corrupt people have been arrested, most of whom have thought themselves beyond the reach of law. Crimes committed years ago have been unearthed and have had light shed upon them. The Chief Adviser, the Chief of the Army and the Chief Election Commissioner have voiced their opposition to the war crimes, calling the participation of the war criminals uncalled for. In the electoral laws that the current government has proposed it is stipulated that no war criminal will be able to run for the office. Yet the government has so far shied away from forming a tribunal or fact-finding committee to probe into the war crimes. In fact, the outcome of the next general election will be flawed if the killers and rapists of 1971 are allowed to participate in it, and if, like the previous general elections, some of them make it to the parliament.

It is indeed a shame on our conscience as a nation that the deaths of so many martyrs who have laid down their lives for the liberation of our country have not been avenged, and that we, as a nation, have collectively failed to enforce justice on the rapists who have perpetrated one of the worst war crimes in human history. This government, as it has taken so many steps to clean our politics of unscrupulous elements, must also start the process of trying the war criminals by forming a commission to probe into the war crimes. The government has sought the help of the UN in this regard, we know, but it has so far taken very few measures to find out the criminals and bring them to justice so that in the next election they will not be able to take part. Every contestant who wants to run for government office must disclose details like what he or she did or where he or she lived in 1971.

It is understandable that the goal of the caretaker government is to hold a free and fair election and hand over power to the elected representatives of the people. We know that the government is only a few months away from holding the elections, but it is also true that the government cannot deny its responsibility of trying a war crime tribunal as it is long overdue and there is a growing demand for it. This government has done many things that its predecessors could not; trying the war criminals is the only issue in which it is following the footsteps of the previous regimes. It is the expectation of the people that before it leaves, the government will form a war crime commission with a sitting high court judge at its helm to glean into the war crimes committed in 1971. This commission will refer the cases to the war crime tribunal that will be formed later on.

One reason why we have not been able to establish the rule of law is because we have not been able to punish those who have committed acts of murder, rape and arson during the very birth of our nation. This is our original sin, the sin that is still stalking us. It is the responsibility of this government to help us atone for that sin.

Will Democracy get a fresh Start in Bangladesh?

When the Caretaker Government assumed power one and a half years ago it promised a free and fair election devoid of the power of money and muscle. A drive on corruption has subsequently been launched; some corruption suspects have been arrested. The government has made some institutional reforms to make democracy more participatory and transparent. With the general election only seven months away, the government has invited different political parties to a dialogue. Issues like the election and carrying out reforms once the elected government takes over are expected to dominate the dialogue.

It is indeed under extraordinary circumstances that the caretaker-government (CTG) has assumed power on January 11 last year--politics reached a new height of anarchy; lawlessness was rampant in the country; a general election was going to be held in which the opposition had, at the end, refused to participate. The arrogance and personal dislikes of the two leading politicians touched an all-time high, the country would have faced a civil war-like situation if the general election scheduled to be held on January 22 had been allowed to take place.

The voter list was flawed, a huge number of fake voters made their way into the list thanks to the partisan election commission, which the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leadership had handpicked to rig the election. In fact, the President himself had sown the seeds for a flawed election when he appointed himself the head of the first caretaker government on October 30, 2006. The system of having a neutral government to hold the general election stumbled further as Prof Iajuddin Ahmed did not let his Advisers function properly. Four senior and respected Advisers subsequently resigned, protesting President Ahmed's partisan roles in running the government.

When democracy was restored in 1990 through a mass upsurge we expected a vibrant and accountable democratic system to take root, instead we saw a dysfunctional democracy where, instead of becoming the first among the equals, the office of the Prime Minister has been used in the most tyrannical manner. Her wishes remained command for her party MPs; a coterie was formed around her inner circle, which manipulated government tenders, gave shelter to killers and earned millions through extortion and selling nomination papers. Politics became synonymous with plundering of the public office. In the last 16 years, we have witnessed the birth of Al Capone-like mafias in the country. It is little wonder that within a few years, Bangladesh has earned the infamous title of being the most corrupt country in the world. This problem was more acute in the last five years, when Hawa Bhaban, an alternative centre of power was created, making Tariq Rahman, BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia's son, as the successor to the Zia dynasty. From manipulations of international tenders to appointment of police officers, the long hand of Tariq and his men were stretched afar, creating a parallel administration. An ever-pervasive culture of corruption and impunity was born and spread its tentacles.

After assuming power, the caretaker government led by Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed has taken the right step of bringing alleged corruption suspects to book. In the last one and a half years we have witnessed the arrests of two former prime ministers and other political leaders and businessmen who had thought themselves above the reach of law. The three stooges of the previous government have been replaced by three new neutral election commissioners; the Anti-Corruption Commission has been revamped; the Public Service Commission has been overhauled; the judiciary has been separated from the executive; the Right to Information Act is in the offing; an ordinance has been promulgated to form a Human Rights Commission (HRC), although it is not clear what is dissuading the government from forming the HRC. To make reforms complete we expect that the government will also set up the office of an Ombudsman.

The rule of the CTG has been an experimental one; it has had both positive and negative repercussions. The fruit of the structural reforms that it has initiated are now near and the only way to attain this is in the form of a good election. The participation of all the political parties is necessary to have a good election. The upcoming dialogue that the CTG has initiated is a long overdue step to bring a national consensus so that the country does not slide back to the days of anarchy and lawlessness. All the political parties must participate in the dialogue and the issue of freedom of both the leaders of the two big political parties must not hinder it. The boycott of the parties will jeopardise the road map for democracy and, worse still, will put us in a situation we will regret to find ourselves in.

Even though leaders of all the major parties have talked of reforming their rank and file, in reality, they have so far stubbornly refused to materialise them. While it is not the job of the government to force the parties to bring reform, the leaders of the BNP, Awami League (AL), Jatya Party (JP) and others must rise above their petty interests, and, for the sake of the country's democratic future, must seriously think of bringing democracy to their folds. In the BNP and AL Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have always run their parties in a dictatorial manner. The less said about HM Ershad and his JP the better. Ironic, it is though that the leaders who talk of democracy with every breath they take will nurture tyranny at home. This must change, and none but the leaders of their parties should take the responsibility to bring it about. The parties must have elections in every tier, and the Election Commission can help them by sending in observers to monitor these elections.

Another issue that has remained unresolved is the funding of these parties. How the BNP, AL and other political parties fund themselves is a mystery. It has been alleged that the parties take a huge amount of donations from crooked businessmen and criminals in exchange of giving advantage to them when they get elected. In fact, the scrapped general election of 2007 has witnessed such shameless displays of nomination buying and selling: dedicated and loyal leaders were ignored and criminals and shady businessmen were given nominations. The next general election will not bring true democracy if such incidents repeat themselves.

The government and the EC must also take steps to make the upcoming elections more free and transparent. Another issue that should be discussed in the dialogue is the way politics is run in the country. Calling general strikes every now and then and burning down public and private properties are not the democratic way to make one's voice heard. We have seen it time and again that, contrary to the democratic norm that prevails in other societies, the losers always cry foul no matter how free and neutral the election is. Khaleda Zia has done it, so has Sheikh Hasina. This undemocratic behaviour has resulted in the boycott of parliament, which the BNP and AL have done in the last 16 years wholeheartedly, making the parliamentary system ineffective and dysfunctional. There are times when the opposition has not been allowed to talk on the floor, which, along with the personal hatred that Khaleda Zia share with Sheikh Hasina have brought politics to the streets. It cost the country dear. Our economy suffered, in our social life, we have seen the birth of a culture of thuggery and violence. The dialogue must address the issue. It will be unfortunate if the parties cannot come to a general consensus about it.

During the mass upsurge of 1969, under a vile military dictatorship, our students revolted, joining hands with the workers, which changed the map of the South Asian sub-continent: Pakistani dictator Field Marshall Mohammad Ayub Khan had to resign, two years later, people united with the workers, peasants and our valiant students led our great Liberation War that saw the birth of Bangladesh. It was long ago, and since then, especially since the fall of Ershad's dictatorial rule, student and labour organisations have become too involved with national politics. The student organisations of both major parties are full of leaders, who had long passed their studentship; some even have known to have private businesses, and head of big families and who are more thugs than anything else. It is natural that students will raise their voice about issues of national and international interests; student life, after all, is about preparing oneself for the future life as a politician, businessmen, civil servant; students, there is no doubt about it, are the nation builders of tomorrow. Having said that, it is necessary to save student politics from the clutches of the family based, narrow minded, corrupt partisan politics, which use the students as cannon fodder. The same is applicable to our labour organisations. The front organisations, as they are known, must be freed from their mother organisations. In fact, our economic growth would have been much higher if Chittagong Port were not closed for so many days and if the Universities did not have to be shut down because two gun-toting factions of a certain student organisation had tried to capture dormitories at the university for their respective parties.

The parties should also decide to carry on the reforms when they get elected. It will be unfortunate if the new government fails to do the reforms it is expected to do after the next general election. There will be a lot of things at hand to do for the government, which, we expect, will take office in the beginning of January next year.

Besides the issue of economic and structural reform, the next government has to think of ways to make the country more governable. Local government bodies must be strengthened; they should have independent budgets. The local government bodies have to be armed with more power so that everything does not remain Dhaka-centric, which alienates the people's participation in governance. Given that Bangladesh has a population of 15 crores, which makes it a country bigger than France or Spain, demands the need for decentralisation. In this way development will be more homogeneous and the fruit of our economic growth will trickle down to those who need it the most. Proposals for multi-tired local government have been prepared long ago. In fact, local government legislation should have come into force a long time ago. Only the vested interests of the local MPs, who do not want to let go of power, have prevented the creation of local bodies.

It is true that ours is a Parliamentary Democracy, where the Prime Minister is the head of the executive branch. There may be certain provisions in our constitution which may have landed us in the present crisis--In our form of government the Prime Minister's power remains unchecked, and, more dangerously, unbalanced. There is a need to make the PM more accountable. There should be a system of checks and balance. Both the parliament and the office of the President may be empowered to check the PM's unlimited power.

This is not to bring the offices of the President and the Prime Minister at loggerheads. The ultimate accountability of the PM should lie with the parliament. Important legislations should be passed before consulting with the leader of the opposition; in this spirit, vital standing committees should be chaired by opposition MPs to make the system more functional. It must be mentioned here that the President should not be put as a rival to the Prime Minister, if this happens, the whole idea of Parliamentary Democracy will fall apart.

The demand for forming a war crime tribunal to try the Razakars and other collaborators who perpetrated genocide against the unarmed civilian population of Bangladesh has gained momentum. There is no doubt that the whole nation is united behind this demand. Some recent comments made by the Chief Adviser, the Army Chief and the Chief Election Commissioner have made us think that the government does not want to see the war criminals in the next parliament. As it does not have ample time to form a tribunal, the government must consider forming a commission, which will eventually indict those who have committed one of the worst atrocities of the last century. The very national unity that we have talked about can start from here. The government and its backers have so far taken initiatives that no other government in our country has thought of taking before: As it has taken some commendable steps to reform our politics, the government must not shy away from dealing with the issue of forming a Commission to probe war crime.

Bangladesh is at a crossroads. The upcoming dialogue is of outmost importance for the future of our democracy. All the political parties must participate in the dialogue, in which, we hope, different stakeholders of our country's business, politics and media will reach a consensus on the burning issues Bangladesh is facing today.

While we understand their concerns about their leaders and hesitance about participating in the dialogue without them, yet for the sake of democracy, which will come through the election, the political parties must join the dialogue. It will be unfortunate if any political party boycotts the general election that is scheduled to be held at the end of this year. Before the parties make any decision they should keep in mind that any boycott is going to jeopardise democracy and will throw us into an abyss we have been in before January 11, 2007. The State of Emergency should be withdrawn before the general election. If the government cannot do that, it must show the people valid reason for it.

All the stakeholders of the upcoming dialogue must show brinkmanship and come out of their petty personal interests. The situation demands them to rise to the occasion and show tolerance and mutual respect for the greater benefit of the nation. The CTG, for its turn, must earn the trust of the stakeholders. The dialogue must not be allowed to fail. If properly guided, it will pave the way for a free election in seven months' time. A bright new beginning lies before us; history will not forgive us if we try to revert its wheel in the wrong direction.

The Invisible Barracoon

Income disparity is rising in the country, and what is ominous about it is that it is rising fast. In real terms it translates into a growing number of poor and the diminishing purchasing power of the middle class. Thanks to spiralling prices of essentials, three and a half crores people in Bangladesh find it impossible to earn three meals a day. It means when a group of fellow citizens is buying designer clothes (say at Tk 7000 apiece) for a friend's wedding (where the price of a bouquet costs Tk 200), there exist another set of citizens who go hungry every night, the price of a bouquet is a family's three days income. It can come down to something as trivial as 'hanging out' or having dinner at one of the designer restaurants that have dotted the landscape of this cruel city. The poor, who remain forgotten and made their presence known only at the traffic lights, begging or selling pirated copies of Da Vinci Code, are the invisible majority. They live in the slums, deal in illegal drugs or become the henchmen of one of the local political leaders. Their children grow up famished, uneducated, abandoned; theirs is an army of poor in waiting and the future that the society holds before these children is of hunger, poverty and violence.

Being poor in this city is a difficult business; it means one will have to embrace the fate of being born poor and live a life in poverty and exploitation. The rich in the country, most of them, have earned money through illegal means. It sets an example, a wrong one indeed. The get-rich-quick lifestyle that is so pervasive in the country tells the poor that the only way in which they can change their situation is through unfair means. So something as basic as a bowl of rice or a plate of vegetables makes them commit crime. Hunger, after all, knows no law.

The state does not give them any healthcare facility, for there is very little to speak of. They die, and they die silently; their death does not make it to the obituary page of the newspapers. No tribute awaits them after death; their departure from this world is as ignominious as their birth. The irony must not escape you: here in this country at the price of a bottle of designer water a mother has to sell her newborn, for she could not feed it, here in this city parents send their children to work as domestic workers, as modern day slaves, only to be raped or scalded with hot iron; and in this city, too, people go to foreign countries, spending thousands of taka, to get a nose job or just to have a vacation. Their conscience, perhaps, too, takes a vacation with them.

It may not sound good, we may find it difficult to digest, but ours is a poor country. The millions we spend on buying foreign shoes and cosmetics, if properly spent, could have contributed to the growth of our economy. With that we could have built hospitals where people would get proper treatment, irrespective of the thickness of their purses. We could have built schools, colleges and universities; millions of children who know only a life of penury and injustice could have been able to break the shackles of poverty, making Bangladesh a middle-income country. That sadly remains a far cry. Our economy is not production oriented, neither is it import substituting.

In the olden times, the slaves were kept in a barracoon before they were shipped off and sold. Neglected and maltreated as they were, many died in confinement; the slavers could not have cared less. Our apathy has made the country an invisible, overcrowded barracoon, in which millions are slowly dying of hunger and malnourishment. It is told that Nero, the tyrannical Roman emperor, played with a violin when Rome burned. We have a thousand Neroes in our midst; when the stomachs of the billions are burning these few thousands are fiddling happily. History teaches us that apathy always leads to disaster. We can afford to ignore what history tells us only at our own peril.

This article was first published in the May 30, 2008 of The Star magazine

Waiting for Godot

For a country that is young and has such a huge number of young people, the politics in Bangladesh is heavily dependent on old politicians

It is unfortunate but true that the average age of the top leaders of all the major political parties has long passed the average age for retirement. In fact, most of the leaders lack vision and the promptness that the country badly needs to face the challenges that the new century throws at its fledgling economy. An old leadership means, the country will unnecessarily dwell on the past and its leaders will remain indifferent to the world of scientific discovery and innovation. One does not need to go afar to see the ramifications. Young people of our country are growing up indifferent to politics, apathy is growing dangerously fast, the country is run without any vision, a culture of lethargy has been born, a culture in which the government, like an idler, remains passive -- instead of having a pro-active role in governance, it only acts when things happen. This apathy or sheer lethargy also means that the people, especially the young ones, have to shout in order to let their voice be heard. It turns bitter at times, for why else will the citizens have to lay siege to the office of the local government office to demand an adequate supply of fertilisers?

This is sad; at least the situation should not have come to this. Bangladesh has been famous for its political leaders; it is, after all, the country of Maulana Bhashani, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Comrade Moni Singh. After the birth of Pakistan and the subsequent military dictatorships that ensued, a vibrant, pro-people student movement was launched and it gave birth to a flurry of leaders who followed a life of sacrifice. The students, as they always have been, form a part of the population, come out from the masses, and, in a country where the majority lacks proper education, should have worked as the vanguard of people. The great mass upsurge that shattered the castle of Ayub Khan into pieces in 1969 is a good example. The movement has been democratic in nature in the sense that its primary aspiration has been to establish democracy in Pakistan. The fall of Ayub, and before that the student and labour movements to remove him from power, swept the politics of Muslim League of Bengal. The party, which led the birth of Pakistan, drew the last blow, the final nail in its coffin. By the election of 1970, the party was wiped off the map of East Pakistan, paving the way for a dynamic leadership to emerge.

In fact, during the bleak days of 1971, it is for the leaders like Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, AKM Mansur Ali that the country, in the absence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, could focus on the ultimate goal that the masses had given them the mandate for--an independent country free from exploitation, the utopia of Shonar Bangla (Golden Bengal) that the people of this land had always dreamt of but could never have achieved came into being. Leaders like Abdur Razzaq, ASM Abdur Rab, Rashed Khan Menon, Matia Chowdhury, Hasanul Haq Inu and Mujahidul Islam Selim are the by-product of the mass upsurge of 1969 and the war of independence.

Selim is a case in point. Now the general secretary of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, he led a procession against the US-led war on Vietnam, which saw the police fire bullets on innocent students. Then the general secretary of the Dhaka University Central Students' Union (DUCSU), Selim protested the police firing by cancelling the life-long DUCSU membership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was at the helm of power of the nation at that time. So has been the tone of student politics till 1990, when a mass upsurge ended HM Ershad's dictatorial rule. During the anti-autocracy movement, as it is known, new young leaders like Khalequzzaman, AFM Mahbubul Haq, Mahmudur Rahman Manna, came of the age.

With the fall of Ershad, this trend has ended, with it has stopped the supply of mature politicians that the student politics has thus far provided the country with. This is the time when commercialisation of the country has taken place. Some old thugs have become Members of Parliament and student bodies have become breeding grounds for young thugs. Most young politicians that we come across are, like their ageing counterparts, corrupt. The entrance of some of these young politicians into politics has taken place for apolitical reasons: their fathers or husbands have been politicians and the batons, as in a relay race, have been handed down to them to carry on the family business; another way is bottom up-- one has to start as a bully boy in one of the student organisations and through bravery (bullying) one can go up the ladder of success and can even make it to the parliament. Our last three parliaments have been littered with the products of this family-based, narrow-minded politics.

Where the solution lies is difficult to tell for creating leadership is a long process and it has to come from the grassroots. The life of sacrifice that the founding fathers of this nation had chosen has not been emulated by any of our present leaders. The issue is indeed a bigger one and is entwined with the criminalisation of politics that has taken place over the decades. The old guards must make room for young talented leadership to emerge, politics must be freed from the clutches of the evil nexus of businessmen and politicians, national politics must set an example for the youth through making politics and the decision making process more participatory and inclusive. Family-based politics is the biggest enemy of democracy; it gives birth to corruption that eats at the very foundation of the country's economy. The parties' should have internal democracy; the only way a young politician can go up and make it to the party office should be through merit. His or her personal relationship with the top leader must not work as an added advantage. Politicians must know when he or she should call it a day. Contrary to other established democracies, our politicians remain in politics till they die. A good leader can read the pulse of people and act accordingly. While it is true that time teaches the politicians the keenest of lessons, making experience the prime requisite to be a good leader, one must have the magnanimity to pave the way for a better replacement. The creation of a knowledge-based society is also necessary for a steady, enduring economic growth, a growth that will include the toiling masses, from whom the new leaders will come.

In Irish writer Samuel Beckett's legendary tragicomedy Waiting for Godot, a character says, 'Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!' In the play, the characters wait for Godot to arrive, their wait never ends. Like the characters of the play, the people of Bangladesh are waiting for a set of sincere, honest, dedicated leaders to come and lead them to the future of prosperity that three million martyrs of the country's liberation war have dreamt of. There is a Bangla proverb that epitomises their desperation-- Kings come and go, the fate of the downtrodden remains unchanged. The fifteen crore people of this country definitely deserve better leaders.

This article was first published in the May 30, 2008 issue of The Star magazine

An Old Route Revisited

The train link between Dhaka and Kolkata, which was suspended 42 years ago, has been restored last month. The event has huge symbolism, for the train, rightly called Maitree (friendship) Express, will bring people of these two South Asian neighbours together. Though the quality of service is not up to international standards and the visa-checking procedure makes the journey long and laborious, and there are security concerns, the government must think of introducing more services like this that will link Dhaka with other South Asian cities such as Kathmandu and Thimpu. Bangladesh can become a communication hub; Maitree should just be the first step towards a giant long march.

Fifty-seven-year-old Beauty Rani, a resident of Dhaka's Wari area can still vividly recall the gruesome days of the partition of the Sub-continent, a time, when, she says, “Bad news was no longer news.” She lost her father in a riot, one gory morning he went to keep the family-owned shop, never to come back again. Her maternal uncles left the country to settle in newly formed India, leaving Rani's mother with the shop. The chance of a family reunion was closed shut in 1965, when in the run up to the war of 1965 between India and Pakistan the passenger rail service between Dhaka and Kolkata (Calcutta) was shut down.

The restoration of the service is good news for Rani, who is now toying with the idea of using it to rekindle old relationships, memories that refuse to fizzle out so easily. Feelings like hers are reciprocated on the other side of the fence. Sumana Roy, an Indian writer, sees this as an opportunity to visit her ancestral home in Pabna, a place she has only heard about from her refugee father. “The house has lived on in my memory. I have heard so much about it from my father, the lush paddy field, the river nearby--everything feels so closer to my heart”. Adyta Roy, her father, was not as lucky; he passed away a few days ago, leaving the tumultuous history of Bengal to his daughter.

Mohammad Zamir, former secretary and ambassador, thinks the restoration of direct train service between Dhaka and Kolkata is a step in the right direction. He thinks, “It will foster tourism in Bangladesh and, given that we develop proper infrastructure, it will generate a real sustainable growth in the country's tourism sector. It will eventually contribute towards the interactive engagement in areas of culture, education and healthcare.”

Sumana agrees. She thinks Bangladesh will be hugely benefited from it, as there are hundreds and thousands of Bangalis who live in her part of India who share the bonding of language and culture with the people of Bangladesh. “I have grown up hearing about Bangladesh. The Doi of Bogra and Shutki Maach of Chittagong I have only heard of but have never tasted. This opportunity I will not miss.”

Her enthusiasm is shared by her countrymen. As IANS, an Indian news agency, has reported two days before the inauguration of the service, “It was only the second day of ticket sales for the India-Bangladesh Moitree Express and all the AC First Class tickets were sold out. Then the visa queue kept getting longer. Around 2,000 people queued outside the ticket counter for eastern railways at Fairley Place in central Kolkata.” On April 12, there have been 4, 000 Bangladeshi visa applicants lining outside the Bangladesh deputy high commissioner's office in downtown Kolkata.

Like their Indian counterparts, Bangladeshis have shown keenness in using the service. A significant number of Bangladeshis travel to India to avail the country's healthcare facilities, one of them is Islam Khan Titoo. He thinks the quality of the service is not up to the mark: “We started at 8 in the morning from the Cantonment Station in Dhaka and reached the border at 2:30 in the afternoon. The train that left Dhaka, the Bangladeshi train, did not have good toilet facilities. There is only one toilet in each coach. The food was not good, and it costs 125 Tk. Even though the visa checking and other formalities on both sides took about an hour and a half, we had to wait for two and a half more hours in a waiting room for the engines to be exchanged along with the train drivers.”

Titoo thinks there is no point in having such a waiting room, while, CR Abrar, professor of International Relations of Dhaka University, thinks the cage is unnecessary.

In fact, Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, has informed the media a day after the inaugural run that his country and Bangladesh are seriously thinking of introducing on-board visa checking to make travel by Maitree easier. Professor Abrar welcomes it, saying, “ Any alternative arrangement that minimises the travellers' discomfort is certainly welcome.”

Mohammad Zamir, too, believes these problems can be sorted out. “As has been evident, the service has met with small hindrances related to passenger support in areas of immigration and custom clearance. I am, however, hopeful that these minor inconveniences will be ironed out,” he says. He thinks the key to the problem lies in “Careful checking of the passengers that should enable us to contain the flow of possible trafficking of persons and smuggling of drugs and illegal weapons across these frontiers.”

Another concern that some Bangladeshis have expressed is that the train service will become a one-sided affair, that there will be more Bangladeshis travelling to India than the other way round, which in economic terms means Bangladeshis will spend more in India. Abrar rubbishes such a claim. “Bangladeshis mostly go to India to avail better healthcare facilities; and I am very blunt about it. The cost of services and unaccountability of the doctors and pathologists and others involved in our country are the factors that are driving away people to secure treatment in neighbouring countries. This should be addressed too. If the patients don't get proper treatments here they will try to get it from other places. You cannot stop that and you cannot blame anyone,” he says, “Our health sector has to regulate itself.”

Abrar thinks that it is time the government takes up other outstanding issues with India like widening trade deficit and sharing of water of the common rivers. “Starting a passenger train service is a good beginning, but it should be followed up by forward movements--the governments of both the countries should think of other broader issues that have remained unresolved,” he says.

However, everyone agrees that the restoration of the train service between these two historic cities is a good sign that needs to be strengthened further. “This will facilitate the growth of trade. In this context the Saarc secretariat should also take necessary measures to activate land surface and railway service between Bangladesh and Nepal and Bhutan with the active cooperation of India,” Zamir, who travelled in the train that used to exist before 1965, says. Abrar also thinks Bangladesh can become South Asia's communication hub with train lines stretching as far away as Singapore through Sitwe (Akyab) of Myanmar and Nepal and Bhutan.

Meanwhile, setting the apprehensions of the decision makers of both the countries aside, Beauty Rani in her Wari home prepares for travelling to her relatives in 24 Paragana in India, a journey that she has made so many times in her mind. She is no longer the little girl of seven that she used to be when her family members bid that fateful farewell to each other. Her hair has turned grey, ageing has taken its toll on her surely, but she is very little worried that her relatives will not be able to recognise her: “How could they not? One's own flesh and blood after all.”

From sharing of water of the common rivers to changing mindsets, Bangladesh and India have a lot of fixing to do. In the changed situation, China has emerged as an economic powerhouse, so has India. A well-connected South Asia will only usher in a world of economic prosperity and development. Our policy makers should seriously think of making the passenger train service to Kolkata as a starting point to connecting the capital to other South Asian and South East Asian cities like Kathmandu, Thimpu, Sitwe and Bangkok. Our products will become more available to these countries, which in turn, will generate growth. In this global village, connectivity is the key. Besides economic growth, it will translate into more mobility of people that will surely make South Asia a vibrant place in which to live and do business.

This article first appeared in the May 16, 2008 of the Star Weekend Magazine